August 17, 2004

Why Law Firms Need to Understand (and Even Embrace) Six Sigma

I was catching up on Larry Bodine's Professional Marketing Blog, when I came across his post on "Six Sigma at Professional Firms". Six months ago, I would've thought, "Hmm, nice idea."

Now, after having joined Caterpillar Inc. as their Legal Services IT Manager, and experiencing firsthand a fully-immersed 6 Sigma culture, I would say it's worth heavy consideration for some law firms, for several good reasons:

  • Six Sigma is based upon continual improvement and efficiency by reducing the number of defects of a given process. An important part of the input comes from actively obtaining the VOC, or "voice of the customer". (How many firms are doing this systematically and thoroughly with a controlled process for continual refinement?)

  • A number of large companies are steeped in Six Sigma culture. At Caterpillar, it is the daily way that projects get done, and there are thousands of such projects. At our global headquarters, one can't even walk far along the hallways without seeing many visual reminders and results obtained from this process.

  • I certainly can't and won't speak for GC's, but if all else was fairly comparable between two competing firms and it was me making the call, I'd want to spend time getting to know the firm that understands the way my company does business -- because the firm itself is walking the walk and talking the talk. I'd also hope to see some of the efficiency benefits manifesting themselves as lower overall fees, higher quality work product, and improved customer service.

  • In my perception, a resulting recommendation made by a Six Sigma team is much more likely to be given weighty consideration and, ultimately, approval -- if the value proposition is sufficiently compelling.

I've taken the Green Belt training, and am serving as such on a number of Legal IT 6 Sigma projects. A personal observation: One of the greatest challenges with this process is that it was initially developed in a manufacturing context. Thus it's much easier to sample and measure the exact dimensions of a metal part than it is to apply these principles to "soft" service areas, such as the practice of law and customer service. In this regard, sometimes one has to become quite creative, and the path to success isn't as obvious. Thus savvy judgment is required to balance the thoroughness required in arriving at an optimal set of recommendations vs. taking the additional time the process adds to get there. If you're looking for a quick fix or snap decision to leap ahead, then in my humble opinion, a full Six Sigma process isn't the right tool to use.

As Larry said, it's a major culture change for law firms. However, properly implemented, I can see where firms can obtain both internal benefits as well as cultivating deeper and more successful relationships with their larger corporate clients. And in my book, that's something that deserves more than a passing glance.

By the way, and somewhat contrary to Larry's advice, I wouldn't recommend trying to bluff one's knowledge of Six Sigma, particularly with a savvy corporate counsel who's gone through the training. Personally, I'd give outside counsel more credibility for acknowledging what they don't know, as long as they understood the underlying philosophy and weren't just trying to snow me to get my business. I do, however, recommend reading up on Six Sigma basics before broaching the subject.

Thus if you're new to Six Sigma or would like a more plain-English explanation, I suggest starting at "New To Six Sigma" and "Six Sigma - What is Six Sigma?", both available at iSixSigma.com.

Topic(s):   Law Practice Management
Posted by Jeff Beard
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