Applying Lean Six-Sigma Principles to Documentation

With much accelerated demands in the global market place for customer-centric solutions, Customer Experience (CE) has become the buzz word that floats around most boardrooms and corporate training rooms. One methodology you might hear associated with CE is Lean Six Sigma (LSS). While CE directly focuses on customer satisfaction, LSS emphasizes process improvement, which in turn results in improving most areas of customer satisfaction. With documentation being a highly visible aspect of any product, enhancing documentation has found a significant place in the priority list of most organizations in order to win and retain customers. This article attempts to look at the various opportunities a documentation team encounters to improve the documentation and allied processes in order to gain better customer acceptance, both internal and external, in a short time with fewer resources—consequently, creating more  value for the organization with minimal $-factor involvement.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

As its name suggests, Lean Six Sigma (LSS) is a combination of Lean methods and Six Sigma approaches.

Lean = Speed     Six Sigma = Quality

LSS strives to quickly achieve quality from the perspective of the customers.

Lean is all about customers—Lean eliminates waste and complexity, thus creating more value in the eyes of the customer with less work. While Lean centers on the separation of ‘value-added’ from the ‘non-value-added’ activity and focuses on rapid problem solving, Six Sigma seeks to reduce process variation by identifying and removing the causes of defects. It provides two problem-solving frameworks called DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) and DMADV (Define-Measure-Analyze-Design-Verify)  that improve performance and productivity.

However, Lean or Six Sigma alone cannot achieve just quality or speed, or dramatically improve process speed or reduce invested costs. When Lean methods and Six Sigma approaches are combined, it can achieve the fastest rate of improvement in customer satisfaction, cost, quality, and process speed.

Defining Waste in Documentation

In a typical Six Sigma methodology, defining waste is not limited to the non-value added activities, but the project goals, scope, customers, and deliverables. In this article, the attempt is to find waste in documentation from the customer’s point of view by acknowledging the fact that the customer perspectives cannot be deciphered unless one clearly understands customer needs.

Therefore, anything in documentation that is not desirable to the user is considered to be waste or non-value added. To lean the documentation and allied processes, you must first identify waste and minimize it in the system.

Waste in documentation is classified into two categories—non-value-added content, and non-value-added activities in the documentation development process.

Non-Value-Added Content: Lengthy, Irrelevant, and Complex Content

“When everything fails, read documentation” is the popular belief. When everything fails, undoubtedly, users will be frustrated and will want to find the information quickly to resolve their issues. If the document they are looking at is lengthy and overly complex, it adds fuel to the fire—unhappy customers could eventually lead to shrinking revenue—a very depressing outcome!

Lengthy documentation adds complexity and hampers the very purpose of providing the documentation in the first place. Different technical writing team members or other teams that handle different components of a large product work in silos and write separate documents about the same features. The documentation effort is not well coordinated among these different teams. Often, we assume that users know everything and ignore the big picture (system approach) of the product. Sometimes, we write about everything except the practical action that the users must take. The result is, several documents addressing the same issues with tons of redundancy – yet not meeting the customer needs.

Nobody, including the approvers, wants to go through overly complex and redundant documents simply because they are too long and tedious to review. If the documents are not properly reviewed and approved, they will contain inaccuracies. Inaccurate documents do not serve any purpose other than intensify customer frustration.

Non-Value-Added Activities: Complexity or Lack of Process

Both complexity and lack of process almost equally harm documentation development. Carrying out processes with the wrong procedures, often when a simpler approach is more effective, adds complexity and involves extra effort from the resources. No development can be carried out successfully without well-defined goals and procedures. When establishing a new process, use the DMADV instead of the DMAIC approach.

Measuring Waste in Documentation

By using Six Sigma approaches, you measure the current process to determine the performance loopholes or establish a value-added process. To measure the waste, you can look at the documentation in two different ways—in terms of content and in terms of the documentation process.

Non-Value Added Content

The aim of a writer is to develop documentation that is relevant to the context, and more importantly, be usable and searchable. The biggest failure in documentation is the existence of redundant statements.  Determine whether or not a document or sections or words in a document add value by asking:

  • Does anyone really read this section of the document?
  • Is the documentation sufficient to perform the job?
  • Which tasks do you think are the most challenging?
  • How often do you refer to the documentation to perform tasks?
  • Are there any tasks for which you always refer to the documentation?
  • Which tasks require the most in-depth information?
  • What is the most frustrating experience with the documentation?
  • Is this section redundant? Can I just refer to another document or another part of this document that already states the same information?
  • Am I really reviewing this document or am I just signing off a review hoping that other reviewers review the document to ensure its accuracy?

Based on the answers you get, structure, add, or delete the content to develop lean documentation.

Non-Value-Added Process

Any non-value-added activities provide a negative return on investment. Various studies in this area, some of which are described in the book Lean Six Sigma for Services, by Michael L. George, show that non-value-added activities account for 95% of the total lead time, of which 35% is necessary, known as Business Value Added – non-negotiable waste—an activity that is required to operate the business but the customer is unwilling to pay for—training, status reports, etc.

In a typical DDLC process most non-value-added activities, such as multiple rounds of reviews and rework in each phase, lead to duplication of work to the organization. It’s frustrating to everyone, it’s a waste of money, and for the writer it’s irritating and demotivating. Duplication of work typically stems from ineffective process flows.

Nobody can explore the non-value-added activities within DDLC better than the documentation team itself. You can analyze the process through direct observation, interviews, and surveys shared within the team. This kind of research can pin down the differences between how different resources perform the same task and the variation. In doing so, it is important to acknowledge that value is subjective—value is highly dependent upon the perspective of the multiple stake-holders. Indeed, in operationally defining value, consider the perspectives of end users, developers and QA, sales and marketing, and technical support who understands the pulse of the end users as well as the product under scrutiny.  Create an as-is representation and attempt to map each step to the points you have filtered through the survey or studies. While designing the new approach, it will ensure that existing problems are not duplicated.  Information about customer comments and complaints, defects, and post-project survey comments can be quite valuable at this stage. The primary purpose of this activity should be to optimize the work processes.

Analyzing Waste in Documentation

According to Lean principles, there are at least seven categories of waste that an organization must be aware of and work towards minimizing or eliminating it. Transport, Inventory, Motion, Over-Processing, Over-Producing, Defects (Tim Wood).

Let’s try to look at Tim Wood from the documentation perspective and create an as-is diagram to analyze waste in the DDLC process.

  • Searchability
  • Movement of resources across projects
  • Movement of work-in-progress artifacts
  • Transferring software/hardware licenses
  • Movement of paperwork
  • Hunting for SMEs
  • Approvals
  • Copying source files to multiple locations
  • Multiple copies of the same source files
  • Missing or inaccurate information
Motion Refer to Transport
  • Waiting for information
  • Waiting for approvals
  • Waiting for reviews
  • Waiting for licenses
  • Reviews and rework
  • Usability
  • Excess information
  • Capturing status report at different location for different stakeholders
  • Technical defects
  • Non-technical defects
  • General

Improving Documentation by Waste Reduction

Lean is a continuous improvement system and aims to  enhance the value in the eyes of the customer, both internal and external. To do this, you must understand and view the whole system through the eyes of the customers in order to meet their needs. Producing what customers want, when they want it, and at the price they are willing to pay.

How to Minimize Transportation / Motion?

Waste How to reduce it
  • Establish a global search capability.
  • Perform automatic indexing, based on search, on the documentation.
  • Create documentation that is maximized for search engines and keyword searches.
Movement of resources across projects
  • Identify the resources early in the product life cycle.
  • Use the back-up writer concept to balance the workload if necessary.
  • Identify the back-up writer along with the primary writer.
Movement of work-in-progress
  • Identify the bottlenecks and delays, and minimize them.
  • Document and follow the best practices.
Transferring software/hardware licenses
  • Assess and ensure that all necessary tools are in place before the project is started.
  • Keep the management informed about the urgency of any additional licenses that you require.
Movement of paper work
  • Avoid hunting for style guides, templates, or other company standards documents at the last minute.
  • Train the resources before they actually start the work.
  • Have a strong knowledge repository that can be easily located.
  • Keep upgrading the knowledge base. Be organized.
Hunting for SME
  • Identify the subject matter experts for each module.
  • Ensure that the time required for documentation assistance is integrated into their schedule.
  • Get the buy-in well in advance.

How to Minimize Inventory?

Waste How-To?
  • Not all approvals are necessary at each stage.
  • Limit the approvals to primary approvers, but notify the secondary approvers.
Copying source files to multiple locations
  • Use a source control mechanism-SVN/Perforce/CM Synergy.
  • Use a single network directory if you are not following source control tools.
  • Archive  the old versions to a common network directory if you are not using a source control mechanism.
Multiple copies of the same source files
  • Do not keep multiple copies of the same source file. You might be confused at a later stage.
  • Keep the repository clean.
Missing or inaccurate information
  • Develop a glossary of terms for each product.
  • Develop post-beta questionnaire for beta testers to uncover inaccuracies or omissions.
  • Work with the product QE to ensure that the documentation is tested.
  • Check accuracy of the installation, upgrade, and migration guides. First-time installation, upgrade, and migration are the most challenging tasks and require the most in-depth information.

How to Minimize Waiting?

Waste How-To?
Waiting for information
  • Identify the SMEs early in the product life cycle.
  • Get their buy-in.
  • Integrate SME discussions into project schedule.
  • Instead of waiting for inputs, set up the environment, and test the features you write about.
Waiting for approvals
  • Notify the SMEs  in advance.
  • Capture the approvers in the documentation plan and share it with the team before the development starts.
Waiting for reviews
  • Be proactive.
  • Follow up mail would definitely help; else, approach them directly.
  • Arrange a meeting to close the discussions immediately.
Waiting for licenses
  • Install a temporary license until you get a permanent one.
  • Attend product training, professional development training, and soft skill training until you get the tools to work. Use the free time effectively.

How to Minimize Over-Production?

Waste How-To?
Capturing status report at different location for different stake holders
  • Use Wiki/Twiki/spreadsheets to project status reports.
  • Share the link or the common network directory where the status is regularly updated.
Excess information
  • Remove redundant information.
  • Use references wherever appropriate.
  • Use single-sourcing.
  • Do not duplicate information in multiple documents of the same product.

Some tips:

  • Online help need not contain screen shots.
  • Online help should be task-oriented. Add the background information in the user guide.
  • User documentation need not include administration issues.
  • Troubleshooting section need not be repeated in release notes. A reference should suffice.

How to Minimize Over-Processing?

Waste How-To?
  • Work with the product management team, field support team, and use case developers to develop and document user profiles, user environments, and typical user workflows.
  • Investigate possibilities for customer site visits to conduct interviews/ethnographic studies to determine how users actually use the documentation.
  • Develop quick reference guides and checklists.
  • Provide more customized tutorials for specific customers.
Reviews and Rework
  • Identify the reviewers in advance.
  • Consider the domain knowledge while identifying the reviewers.
  • Estimate and integrate the effort required for reviews into the project schedule.
  • Minimize the number of review cycles and cycle time.
  • Capture the repeated errors and ensure that they are not repeated.

How to Minimize Defects?

Waste How-To?
Technical defects
  • Improve the product and domain knowledge.
  • Set up an environment, and test the features that you document.
  • Be part of the team. Much  useful information are shared during informal meetings.
  • Enhance the OS (Linux/ Windows/ Mac) knowledge.
  • Clarify doubts—never keep a question to yourself.
  • Provide troubleshooting information for the product issues.
Non-Technical defects
  • Enhance your writing skill.
  • Be thorough with the style guide.
  • Note down the repeated errors and understand what is wrong with the usage.
  • Establish informal sessions among TechPubs on writing and communication skill.
  • Share the knowledge through informal meetings.
  • Always be open to learning.
  • Accept constructive criticism.

Controlling Waste in Documentation

Foster a culture where you continually improve your skill levels and documentation processes.

Discourage all kinds of non-lean behaviors— lack of teamwork, marginal motivation of workforce, team putting effort into insignificant matters, superiors not providing a sense of direction to the workforce.

Closely monitor the tasks with high work-in-progress (W-I-P) such as reviews, reworks, and approvals that leads to long process time; strive to remove bottlenecks and delays to those tasks.

Quickly resolve the defects that cause rework and increase the W-I-P—note that reducing the defect rate will directly reduce the rates W-I-P.

Take up the activities with the highest queue time first to reduce the lead time and W-I-P as the bottleneck is minimized or resolved.

Too many project responsibilities on the same resource often create significant complexity to the entire system. Level the workload, no idle, no over burden! Encourage your team to share the work load during the high workload period.

Reduce interruptions to high set-up time activities (setting up product environment) so that processing can complete without such interruptions. Seek assistance from experts to quickly finish the activities. Also, ensure that you document the steps or important points while doing it so that next time you can do it with any help.

Use checklists to track and follow process variation.

Capture the errors that are repeated, and ensure they are not repeated.

Convert the tacit knowledge (knowledge known to single resource of the organization—through exposure or experience to certain situation) to explicit knowledge (articulated or stored in a media).  Capture and maintain internal and external explicit knowledge.  Keep the team’s explicit knowledge base up-to-date.

About the Author

Radhika PC, a Senior Technical Writer with EMC Corporation, brings in more than 7 years experience in different flavors of Technical Communication including IT Journalism, Courseware Development, Science Journalism, and Software Documentation. A Gold-Medalist in MA Mass Communication & Journalism from Mysore University, Radhika has a degree in Computer Science. She is a Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt holder, and currently pursuing Project Management & Communication Certification at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Radhika is known to be an open-source enthusiast.


Comments are closed.