Project Management Institute

Quality control

BY DAVID E. ESSEX

SOFTWARE • SOFTWARE • SOF TWARE • SOFTWARE • SOFTWARE • SOFTWARE • SOFTWARE • SOFTWARE

LEAN SIX SIGMA GETS AUTOMATED— PUTTING ALL THE NECESSARY DATA IN ONE PLACE.

Both lean manufacturing and the Six Sigma business-improvement methodology have been around for a while. But companies could still use a little help in actually carrying them out.

Stripped to their essences, Six Sigma strives to identify and eliminate the causes of defects and errors in processes and, thus, in the resulting products or services, while lean manufacturing targets time and resources to ensure each step adds value. Both methodologies require extensive training and analysis of work processes as well as intense data collection and a broad range of statistical tools.

Historically, practitioners have relied on a motley assortment of whiteboards, printouts, paper charts and basic software to compile and present the relevant information. But recently, a handful of software providers have sought to automate the entire lean Six Sigma process, pulling together formerly disjointed elements into a single program.

Although there are many tools available for download at little or no cost, I focused on professional-class programs geared toward project managers. That meant finding software that combined process-improvement methodologies with task and resource lists, schedulers, Gantt charts, and basic portfolio tools such as dashboards, surveys and benchmarks. I steered away from high-end portfolio management platforms and focused instead on two programs that any member of a lean Six Sigma team should be comfortable using on a daily basis.

QUALITY COMPANION 2

Minitab's flagship statistical software is considered the de facto standard for Six Sigma number-crunching—the company claims 95 percent market share. But it's not known for the process-charting and the groupware features users need for all the other lean Six Sigma steps. For those, you need Minitab's Quality Companion 2 and a free add-on called Dashboard.

Like SigmaFlow's Green Belt Combo—the other program I tried out—Quality Companion 2 centralizes the standard software tools of both project management and lean Six Sigma on its main screen. The tree directories are combined for both disciplines in one windowpane, so users can easily work with task lists, schedules, roadmaps and “fishbone” brainstorming charts simultaneously. Changes in one area are generally reflected in the other, although Quality Companion 2 sometimes relies on manual entry.

I especially like the numerous coach icons that accompany many of Quality Companion 2 tools. Click on one of these and up pops an explanation of the tool written by a Master Black Belt.

The two competitors are also alike in their drag-and-drop features that allow users to input data, such as Six Sigma X/Y variables, into a process chart by simply dragging them on the screen. Both products can also link to document files and web pages, though Green Belt Combo performs the latter task more effectively.

Minitab readily acknowledges Quality Companion 2 is meant to do everything the Minitab statistics software doesn't do. Because it was designed to complement Minitab, Quality Companion 2 is light in statistical features. It has quite a few, but not nearly as many as Green Belt Combo's Excel plug-in provides—and they're not as well-presented or easy to use.

Quality Companion 2 suffers a bit from the same charge that has been leveled against Microsoft Office Project: It's really a desktop tool for a single user. Minitab admits this, offering Dashboard for the multi-project view, but I found this add-on's minimal features kept it from being a serious contender.

GREEN BELT COMBO

It's not that the Quality Companion 2 user interface is bad. In fact, it's well-organized and quite easy to use, if a bit busy. But Green Belt Combo's format is outstanding—one of the best I've ever seen.

The Green Belt Combo is really a bundle of tools that SigmaFlow also offers separately:

Workbench incorporates Mapper, a process-charting tool, with powerful process-analysis, Six Sigma, statistical and compliance capabilities.

Coach is billed as the real brains of its operation, providing “just-in-time training” that helps employees consistently and appropriately apply the tools they've learned.

The optional separately priced Insight online repository takes Green Belt Combo to the corner office with extensive portfolio management features.

Green Belt Combo also offers a more comprehensive set of standard project management tools, as well as a Microsoft Project import/export feature Quality Companion 2 lacks. And Green Belt Combo imports files from Microsoft Excel and Visio, which Quality Companion 2 does not.

THE VERDICT

Truth be told, the comparison isn't apples to apples. Green Belt Combo was designed from the ground up to automate any best-practice methodology. Quality Companion 2 is undeniably Minitab's child, dependent on it and driven by the parent program's stats-heavy approach to lean Six Sigma.

Between the two, the choice is easy. Green Belt Combo is far and away the more elegant, powerful and full-featured option. Its price, more than twice that of Quality Companion 2, doesn't tell the whole story on value. Green Belt Combo has enough of the statistical power you need for Six Sigma—not Minitab-class, admittedly, but far more than what comes with Quality Companion 2.

What's the bottom line? If you've already invested in Minitab, look at Quality Companion 2 to bring more speed and predictability to the rest of your Six Sigma process. But if you're still shopping around, consider Green Belt Combo to reliably automate and control not only your process-improvement initiatives, but all projects you want to replicate according to best practices. It can pay for itself in training costs alone.

QUICK FACTS

QUALITY COMPANION 2

Requires: Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3, XP with Service Pack 1 or higher, or Vista; Internet Explorer 6 or higher; Adobe Acrobat 5 or higher; 1,024 X 768 display; 1-GHz 32- or 64-bit CPU; 512MB RAM; 125MB hard disk space.
Price: $495.

At-a-Glance Review (5⋆s is best)
Ease of Use: ⋆⋆⋆
Feature Richness: ⋆⋆⋆
Performance: ⋆⋆⋆⋆
Project Management Support: ⋆⋆⋆
Value: ⋆⋆⋆

www.minitab.com

GREEN BELT COMBO

Requires: Windows Vista, XP or 2000; Microsoft .Net Framework 1.1; Excel 2000 or later; 256MB RAM; 200 MB hard disk space; CD-ROM drive.

Price: $1,199 with discounted perpetual license. Includes SigmaFlow Coach and Workbench.

At-a-Glance Review (5⋆s is best)
Ease of Use: ⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆
Feature Richness: ⋆⋆⋆⋆
Performance: ⋆⋆⋆⋆
Project Management
Support: ⋆⋆⋆⋆
Value: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

www.sigmaflow.com

David E. Essex is an Antrim, New Hampshire, USA-based journalist specializing in IT.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM NETWORK JULY 2008 WWW.PMI.ORG
JULY 2008 PM NETWORK

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