Project Management Institute

Winning pair

integrating Six sigma and PMBOK® guide at an organizational level



Steve Pham, PMP, North Highland, Denver, Colorado, USA


Both the management strategy Six Sigma and A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) offer vital lessons for project professionals—and combining the two philosophies can further enhance their usefulness.

Organizations are increasingly seeking Six Sigma talent, according to a study released by executive search firm The Avery Point Group. The research shows that the demand for lean and Six Sigma talent has risen by more than 90 percent globally since last year.

Part of the reason for this increase is that Six Sigma is a quality management approach that—like the PMBOK® Guide—is very process-, customer- and improvement-oriented. By building better process capabilities to improve customer satisfaction, companies can reduce defects, which in turn lowers costs. Applying this philosophy within PMBOK® Guide's nine Knowledge Areas (especially in the Project Quality Management Area) can enhance project performance in the primary project constraints as outlined in its Fourth Edition: scope, quality, schedule, budget, resources and risks.


When a company merges both PMBOK® Guide and Six Sigma, it has support for planning and monitoring a project, and techniques for better performance in its processes.

—Paulo Ferreira, PMP, Six Sigma Brasil, Sao Paulo, Brazil


“When it comes to project management, the two disciplines are almost mirror images of each other,” says Steve Pham, PMP, senior manager of the Denver, Colorado, USA office of North Highland, a management and IT consulting firm.

“With the marriage of PMBOK® Guide and Six Sigma in my everyday vernacular and project thought process, I draw from both disciplines in every project I encounter,” Mr. Pham says.

Six Sigma's emphasis on quantifiable outcomes can link project benefits to business results, says Paulo Ferreira, PMP, director of Six Sigma Brasil, a consultancy in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

While working with a local pharmaceutical company, his organization determined that Six Sigma and project management techniques would shorten the viability study phase to determine profits by 30 percent. These techniques would also reduce the life cycle of projects to launch new products.

These impressive results then helped garner project support from business leaders, Mr. Ferreira says.

“When a company merges both PMBOK® Guide and Six Sigma, it has support for planning and monitoring a project, and techniques for better performance in its processes,” he says.

Mr. Pham recently managed a project to create standardized processes and to improve service for field representatives at a packaged goods company. “The principles of Six Sigma, especially process control, voice of the customer, root cause analysis, process capability and measurement system analysis were deployed,” he says.

However, Mr. Pham recognized that Six Sigma techniques alone would not ensure project success.

“We layered on another set of disciplines to help plan, execute, monitor and control the project,” he adds. “These disciplines came from PMBOK® Guide Knowledge Areas.”

That added level of control facilitated coordination across multiple stakeholder groups, process definitions and systems, Mr. Pham says.


In trying to merge Six Sigma with PMBOK® Guide, Mr. Pham has seen organizations stumble when they lack understanding of how the processes mesh. Unless they've received specific training, people often view Six Sigma as a technique aimed at reducing defects. And for those who haven't received PMBOK® Guide training, a common view of a project manager might be “a person who leads a project to help ensure that it ends on time and on budget,” Mr. Pham says.

Those responses aren't wrong—but they derive from an incomplete view, he says. For example, at face value, it may be hard to relate “zero defects” (most commonly associated with manufacturing) to a customer relationship management project.

“The lack of understanding between the two disciplines has created a selfmade mental roadblock that stifles any productive conversations in integrating the two disciplines,” Mr. Pham says.

To educate stakeholders and project team members, “first break down the mental barrier that each discipline only serves limited types of projects or is only applicable within certain industry types,” he advises.

A quick way to do that is to identify and illustrate similarities. For example, ask stakeholders what comes to mind when they think of quality management.

“Once the stakeholders have articulated their definition of quality management, you can easily make the connection between project quality management knowledge areas within PMBOK® Guide and Six Sigma, since the two disciplines share common definitions, tools and techniques,” Mr. Pham says. Then focus the conversation on leveraging the strengths of both disciplines—instead of emphasizing the perceived distance between them.

Another misconception he's observed is in regard to the length of cycle time for successful implementation. Conventional thinking suggests that Six Sigma takes a very long time to get running because it involves a lot of process redesign, statistical control, quality management, cultural shift and top-down organizational support, Mr. Pham says.

“The fact is, both disciplines require a certain level of maturity before organizations can fully tap into their potential,” he attests.



The goal was nothing short of perfection. Actually, the goal was to come just short of perfection—achieving 99.9997 percent reliability.

As a way to reduce product defects to a mere 3.4 per million, Motorola, the telecom company in Schaumburg, Illinois, USA, developed the management philosophy Six Sigma in the mid-1980s.

The manufacturer achieved that level of reliability, thanks in part to a rigorous focus on data gathering and statistical analysis.

Nowadays, organizations large and small have found that pairing Six Sigma with project management best practices effectively improves an array of business processes. At its core is a process called DMAIC, which has five key phases:

Define the problem, project goals and customer requirements.

Measure key aspects of the current process and collect relevant data.

Analyze the data to determine the root cause of the problem.

improve the current process by selecting and testing the best possible solutions.

control the ongoing quality of the process by creating a standardized, monitored process with documented procedures. The goal is to identify and correct potential variations before they lead to a problem or defect.

To designate levels of expertise, Six Sigma borrows from martial arts. Individuals earn belt colors by demonstrating mastery of Six Sigma's methodology.

YELLOW BELTS signify basic training in the methodology.

GREEN BELTS receive enough training to work on a Six Sigma project team and lead small-scale improvement projects. They also support larger projects headed by Black Belts.

BLACK BELTS are highly trained and adept with statistical tools. Their ability to interpret analytics helps them spot process-improvement opportunities and act as coaches to Green Belts.

MASTER BLACK BELTS are experts in Six Sigma quality and help guide the strategic direction for their organization's Six Sigma program. They also mentor and train Black Belts and Green Belts.


At Patni, an IT outsourcing firm in Mumbai, India, training in both is emphasized.

“Six Sigma and PMBOK® Guide complement each other very effectively, and at Patni we do see these two as possibly overlapping but certainly not conflicting,” says Jyotirmoy Dasgupta, the company's vice president and head of quality assurance. “Six Sigma's statistical and other quantitative techniques are very important weapons in the project manager's arsenal. So is PMBOK® Guide, with its ability to guide project managers at every phase and activity of the project.”


Learn from your mistakes.

“Six Sigma teaches statistical data analysis and statistical control, which are the foundation for statistical problem-solving that can be used as a basis for data analysis in PMBOK® Guide and create an environment of self-learning and innovation,” says Luis Roberto Cuellar, Softtek, Monterrey, Mexico.

The main benefit is that it's proactive.

“Typically, a problem occurs that we did not foresee, so we go in and try to fix it,” Mr. Cuellar says. “Then we go to the next problem.”

On another initiative, though, different defects might emerge.

“This makes it very difficult to apply what we did in the previous project to the current problem,” he says. By using statistical control, project managers can identify the types of defects, when they were introduced and why they weren't detected earlier. “Then you can go back to the process and see how you can predict those specific types of defects,” he says.

Project managers can start modifying the process to ensure certain types of defects are eliminated before they occur.

While there is a large pool of certified Six Sigma Yellow, Green and Black Belts at Patni, the firm encourages all its project managers to obtain the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification. In fact, the company pays for all training expenses and examination fees. About 30 percent of Patni's project managers have PMP® certification, and all of them receive PMBOK® Guide training.

Hundreds of the organization's projects have benefited from combining the procedures, Mr. Dasgupta claims. In fact, it helped save a recent software development project. When the project entered the coding phase, the project manager discovered that it fell short of planned productivity.

“PMBOK® Guide stresses controlling projects through a plan, and checking performance vis-à-vis the plan,” he says. “If plans relating to quality or costs are not met, the project manager should do a root cause analysis, have an improvement hypothesis—and after implementing the planned process improvements, check that the project is back on track.”

When productivity went off-track, the project manager decided to utilize a Six Sigma technique called “The 5 Whys.” In this analysis, once you have identified a problem, you ask, Why did this happen? You take the response to that question and again ask, Why did this happen? Repeat until a clearer idea of the root cause emerges.

For the Patni project, root-cause analysis led the project team to hypothesize that domain-specific training for the coders and an automated code generator should increase coding productivity. Sure enough, after implementing these two processes, productivity reached planned levels. Using similar techniques, software testing productivity was increased in one project by more than 200 percent, according to Mr. Dasgupta.


During the past decade, Luis Roberto Cuellar, global director of process improvement and compliance at Soft-tek, a global IT services provider in Monterrey, Mexico, has worked to implement PMBOK® Guide and Six Sigma into his team's projects.

“We have to comply with many quality frameworks, so we have used PMBOK® Guide to establish some of the main processes in the organization,” he says.

That includes all of the basic procedures, such as estimation, project planning, tracking and risk management—as well as ideas for quality management and project human resource management.

With those processes in place (and the basic metrics to monitor them), Mr. Cuellar and his team have incorporated Six Sigma techniques in two main ways:

  1. They use Six Sigma to define the specific documents for project charting, and stakeholder analysis to establish the stakeholders, champions and critical-to-quality (CTQ) outputs on customer development and internal process-improvement projects.
  2. His project teams also use the emerging Design for Six Sigma methodology to create processes for CTQ outputs gathering and for customer satisfaction. With Design for Six Sigma, the focus is not on improving a process that's already in place. Instead, the idea is to first understand exactly what the customer is looking for in a product or service being designed.

The pairing of PMBOK® Guide and Six Sigma has improved the efficiency of processes that are currently implemented, Mr. Cuellar says.

“PMBOK® Guide provides you with a group of characteristics or requirements to comply with, to assure your project management is done right. However, the way in which you solve the requirements is through a specific process that you must design yourself,” Mr. Cuellar says—and Six Sigma can play an important role in that regard. PM

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