London: Spin doctors for New Labour came up with the election-winning mantra, education, education, education. Now, winners in the e-learning world are beginning to stress that success comes from an adherence to quality, quality, quality.
Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) is one such thrice-qualified quality company. Not content with achieving ISO 9001 quality certification, TIS became last year - the first company providing custom-built e-learning solutions to be assessed at level five on the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) scale. The CMM is the most rigorous quality standard worldwide and encompasses leading companies such as Boeing, Raytheon, IBM, NASA and Motorola.
Having subscribed to the ISO 9001 standard and the SEI CMM, it was a short step for TIS to investigate Six Sigma - a management philosophy originally developed by the Motorola organisation. The word Sigma is a statistical term that measures how far a given process deviates from perfection. The central idea behind Six Sigma is that if you can measure how many defects you have in a process, you can work out how to eliminate them and get as close to zero defects as possible.
Applying Six Sigma techniques helped TIS to achieve a remarkable 70 per cent reduction in product defects from 44 per thousand to just 18 per thousand within the first quarter of 2002.
Sambit Mohapatra, the head of TIS in the UK, commented: "The defects refer to such things as spelling mistakes, the style and look of screens in an e-learning programme and so on, rather than major problems. Many companies that use Six Sigma techniques are fortunate to reduce product defects by some 35 per cent a year, but TIS reduced its defect rate by 70 per cent in only one quarter."
There are three key elements to achieving quality: customers, processes and employees. Customers define quality, and expect among other things - performance, reliability, competitive prices, on-time delivery, service, clear and correct transaction processing. TIS's chief executive, Sanjaya Sharma, believes that: "Delighting our customers is a necessity. Because if we don't do it, someone else will!"
Striving for quality requires an organisation to look at its business from the customer's perspective, not its own.
Sharma said: "Early on in exploring the Six Sigma philosophy, TIS realised that it had to look at its processes from the outside-in. By understanding the transaction lifecycle from the customer's needs and processes, we can discover what they are seeing and feeling. With this knowledge, we can identify areas where we can improve our products and services and add significant value from their perspective."
At its core, Six Sigma revolves around the key concepts of identifying:
- Attributes of an organisation's products and services that are the most important to a customer.
- Where the organisation fails to deliver what a customer wants.
- What the organisation's production process can deliver.
- What the customer sees and feels when the finished product or service varies from what was expected.
- Ways of ensuring consistent, predictable processes to improve what the customer sees and feels.
- How to design products and services that can be produced and that meet customer needs.
Sharma explained: "The typical business adopts an inside-out view of the market, based on an average performance from its recent past. However, customers don't judge a business on its average performance. Rather, they judge performance by the product or service that they buy. First, Six Sigma focuses on reducing process variation. Then it addresses improving the capability of that process."
A business that is wedded to Six Sigma techniques strives to produce consistent, predictable business processes that deliver world-class levels of quality.
"In other words, the fewer defects there are in our work, the less re-working we have to do and the higher our productivity. We finish our work quicker. There are fewer hassles for the client - and the client is able to use the courseware that we produce on their behalf sooner and to greater effect. This becomes a virtuous circle of which our clients heartily approve!"
"In turn, customers value this which means that they return time and again to enjoy this predictable level of quality from TIS. This market success encourages us to continue to improve our levels of service and quality - and the whole process keeps going."
To achieve Six Sigma quality, a process must produce no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. An opportunity is defined as any chance for non-conformance that is, not meeting the required specifications.
Even one defect can be costly for a business. If customers have a bad experience with a suppliers products or services, they will tell their friends and relatives who, in turn, tell their friends and relatives and so on. A good reputation may well lead to another sale; a bad reputation will lose sales for an organisation. Six Sigma offers a systematic way of looking at a business and trying to put a price on every failure.
The stages in a Six Sigma project are:
Identify a problem.
- Form a team with the required skills to overcome this problem.
- The Define phase - defining project goals and boundaries and identifying issues that need to be addressed to achieve the higher Sigma level.
- The Measure phase - gathering information about the current situation to obtain baseline data on current process performance and identify problem areas.
- The Analyse phase - identifying the fundamental causes of quality problems, using appropriate data analysis tools.
- The Improve phase - implementing solutions that address the problems that were identified during the previous phase.
- The Control phase - evaluating and monitoring the results of the previous phase.
Sharma commented: "Basically, the Six Sigma process identifies an area where there is a problem, measures it, work outs why there is a problem and then fixes it."
"This means that a company that is dedicated to Six Sigma such as TIS, should become almost flawless in executing its key processes. Six Sigma is both a vision that we strive towards and a philosophy that is part of our business culture."
"Globalisation and instant access to information, products and services have changed the way our customers conduct business," he continued. "Old business models no longer work. Today's competitive environment leaves no room for error. We must delight our customers and relentlessly look for new ways to exceed their expectations. This is why Six Sigma Quality has become a part of our culture."
Six Sigma methodology has gained popularity because it has proved to be successful not only at improving quality - and thus helping to generate more business for the organisation that adopts it - but also at producing large cost savings along with those improvements.
Other companies have also reported large savings after incorporating Six Sigma methodology. For example, Motorola - the leading member of a consortium of companies that developed the Six Sigma approach - reported savings of over $11bn dollars after introducing the Six Sigma techniques some 12 years ago.
By Bob Little
Aiming for top quality
Established in 1990 and fully operational within the UK since 1998, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) employs some 350 people most of them in India and is one of the 86 companies within the Tata Group. The Tata Group, which, ever since its inauguration nearly 100 years ago, distributes a proportion of its profits to charity including funding India's largest cancer hospital - is now India's largest business house, accounting for some two per cent of India's gross domestic product (GDP).
TIS focuses on developing high quality products, using mature systems and processes. It builds corporate e-learning solutions, creates learning portals; converts courseware to run on the latest delivery platforms, and develops products for the education sector as well as the corporate sector. The company's dedication to a total quality philosophy has earned it and its customers - numerous awards, including gold awards from BIMA, the Personnel Today E-learning Award in 2001, along with a BETT Award in 2002.