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Six-Sigma

Six-Sigma is an ideology, based on studies Motorola did to increase quality in manufacturing. ATMI, my former employer, used Six-Sigma in the quality department to minimize manufacturing defects and in project management to keep projects from getting out of control. Six-Sigma is also used to keep large projects on focus. I helped support a few guys with minor IT issues as they progressed through the Six-Sigma program.

After my colleague and I started working at ATMI we quickly realized there were few processes in place. People came to us and we had to learn how our company ordered computers on the fly. Some managers would consult us and order computers on their own, others would have us order for them, and some would just order non-standard computers that didn't fit their needs because they never consulted us. This was very inefficient. I followed how one manager ordered extra-light (more expensive) laptops for his non-travelling staff. This created a potential theft situation, because we had unsecured/unattended laptops sitting on desks.

Shortly into our careers my colleague and I felt our computer expertise should be used in company computer ordering, so we encouraged all managers to have us order new computers. This gave us an idea when following our corporate approval process and we’d know when to expect arrivals. We mimicked the processes used by the guys at our Texas facility, with a few modifications to fit our specific and local conditions.

The one issue we could never seem to overcome was with new hires getting their computers delivered and setup prior to their first day. We’d get a two-day notice of new employees, and they’d need a new computer in place and set up. Our HR representative was displeased when we told her it would take that much time just for the purchase order approvals to go through at corporate. We asked for more lead time, only to find out this was how quick they hired, after the final candidate selection. ATMI was a quick growing high-flying technology company with about 4 or 5 new hires each month.

We worked out a compromise so HR would give us an idea by telling us about when positions would be created, rather than when people were hired for the position. This new plan was run up the flag-pole, and our location vice-president approved our new process. Remember, we didn’t have much guidance, and we made the plans up as needed. We tried to make everything have a business sense to it, and our local VP liked the way we functioned. Unfortunately our HR was as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle, and it was like pulling teeth to get quantity of newly created positions so we could order the right amount of computers.

Logically when the position was created, it was known what kind of computer would be used. Travelers received regular laptops, while heavy travelers received lightweight laptops, and non-travelers would get desktop models. We had three basic computer systems we’d order, and we accomdated specialized equipment when it made business sense.

ATMI like many companies had a corporate Purchase Order (PO) process. Computers were purchased as Capitol Assets using a PO. Capitol Assets were items over $500, needing different accounting and depreciation from non-capitol items purchased. I also learned the total cost of a PO was around $200 after all the people that needed to sign off and submit reports and such.

After I placed the order on our intra-web, it would go to our Connecticut database and get a number, then it was forwarded to an approver, after approval it went to a person who would set it up in accounting and assign the asset to a department, then it was off to the gal who would place the order with Dell. Dell would manufacture then ship the computer and LCD monitor in separate boxes. The dock guys would pile-up receivables for the receiving clerk, and she would mark them as received in the corporate database.

Once I learned the basic patterns of hiring I suggested ordering a bunch of laptops on a single PO to minimize the administration costs. Knowing that our HR representative was as useful as a balsa-wood anchor, if I needed 4 computers for the next month, I would order 6 to cover for her typical surprise indiscretion.

Things were going fine with our location, but during our weekly teleconference meetings we heard nightmare stories from the circus moneys in Connecticut employed as corporate IT. Any manager from any department could order from a long list of Dell computers without any input or knowledge from IT. When computers arrived the receiving clerks would put it aside in the cage. The shipping clerks harbored ill-will towards IT because those computers took up a lot of their precious room when they weren’t picked up promptly. Department managers who ordered the computers complained to IT because the new computers for their new employees weren’t set up. IT had no work orders or knowledge of the new computers, but it was still perceived as their fault. It was like a three-ring-circus wit no ringmaster.

During those weekly teleconference meetings we were asked what we had for equipment processes. The Connecticut folks were astonished that we would throw our weight around and insist people follow our processes, even as pseudo policy after being run by the facility VP. Connecticut had a long followed policy of passive-aggressive behavior, and avoidance of anything resembling personal responsibility or taking chances.

The IT Infrastructure director at ATMI was Clark Morrow. Clark was working on a company-wide cost project to complete his Six-Sigma Black Belt training. This meant he got all of his subordinates to do a project, he later took credit for, to achieve his Six-Sigma Black-Belt!

When Clark first contacted me about a class that would incorporate is Six-Sigma project I was impressed. The project was for us to develop a way to streamline ordering of computers. I made a few suggestions and the project evolved to become "The Life Cycle of IT Assets" - covering ordering, inventory, standards, and disposal.

The Six-Sigma project was up and running after flying us in to Connecticut from all over the country. The project was all diagrams, flowcharts, and process documentation. By the time we were finished we had a 100 page document on ordering and setting up computers, and an hour long PowerPoint presentation to go with it.

Shortly after I left the company my manager, Penny Yellen, worked with accounting and came up with the idea that the PO and its costs should be assigned to specific employees and their departments. No longer would they ordering batches of computers or, spare computers for quick hires. New hires will have to use an old loaner laptop for a week or so until their computer would arrive – slowing productivity to a crawl while they use a worn out depreciated relic, then just as they had all their stuff loaded onto it they would have to migrate everything to te new computer. They also determined monitors come under the $500 capitol threshold, while the computer itself was over the capitol asset threshold. They came up with the idea that monitors and computers should be done on separate PO forms and processed separately. By the time they were done administrative costs of acquiring IT assets was up about 800%.

I worked with a great bunch of folks in Minnesota. One of the Vice Presidents asked me set up video conferencing for the facility. Headquarters wanted me to install it with a plasma TV, not understanding our business unit created products for the LCD industry, and our clients would be offended if they stopped by and saw plasma TV. We bypassed corporate and mounted a projector with a stereo system instead of a TV period. It had the bonus of giving us another projector. Headquarters liked our setup so much they copied it.

My colleague Don did most of the setup and training for video conferencing. He also did the training for the whole company, and was ordered to charge it all to the Minnesota Packaging Business Unit budget. There’s nothing better than business units blatantly screwing over other business units of the same company. It still saved Packaging money, because of all the airfare it saved. Sending people to Tokyo and Toyohashi, Japan was expensive

Sanjeev Narang was the database administrator and was personally responsible for hundreds of lost hours of productivity with his ineptitude with Clear Orbit. He grew tired of slowing the company’s databases to a crawl and wanted to do some real damage to the company, so he became a project manager. Quickly he entered Six-Sigma training. When he reached the Black Belt portion of the training he needed a project. He choose Video Conferencing as his Black Belt project. Yes folks, he picked a completed project as his Black Belt project. A project which saved the company tons of money, worked well, and came in on budget and ahead of time, exactly because he wasn’t involved in it,

This is the guy that screwed up everything he touched. The project had been virtually finished for almost a year and in maintenance phase. Sanjeev calls my old colleague, Don, and requests all of his work and documentation on Video Conferencing. He was basically just another ATMI employee looking to take credit for a long completed and successful project. Don refused to give Sanjeev more than the basics, citing if he has a project on Video Conferencing he should actually research it himself. There was no way in hell Don would willingly allow Sanjeeve plagiarize all of his work, and to present it as his at the next IT meeting. When he does present it at the IT meeting, Don will be waiting for him to ask tough pertinent questions, just to make him look like an idiot.

All IT projects assigned a project manager seem to be in a perpetual state of being stalled. Managed projects are the projects that come in late, over budget, and stifle productivity. Six-Sigma resulted in slower and more costly processes to order computers, stalled projects, and is implemented by people looking to steal credit.

In the end ATMI is a company with several hot products with great market share, yet has a stock that is stalled and trades in a relatively tight range. You’d be better off investing in Powerball tickets until most of the management is put out to pasture!