Adapting Six Sigma for Academia
By Timothy Chow and Craig Downing

Dealing with limited resources, funding for higher education has been diverted to meet other high-priority needs. Yet society still expects investments in STEM education to satisfy the demand for skilled workers that can feed the high-tech economy.

On one hand, state funding declines for higher education, while on the other hand public sentiment rails against rising tuition that makes up for the reduction of state appropriations. It has become more common to hear about closures of colleges and universities due to enrollment decline and unmet revenue to meet operational obligations. In other cases, budget constraints have eliminated some programs and services.

Typically, about half of the students who start a four-year degree program graduate within six years. Identifying ways to increase student retention and improve graduation rates are top priorities for academic institutions. Our team at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology wondered if quality improvement tools like Six Sigma could help turn things around. The team took the opportunity to set up a project and identify whether Six Sigma would improve student retention at the institute.

The following descriptions highlight the corresponding actions taken in our project during each of the five DMAIC phases. It should be noted that activities in these phases need not occur in a sequential manner.

Define: Identify the problem(s) and define the scope of the project. A project charter is a comprehensive document that helps identify a process that needs improvement, together with the customer requirements for the project. This team’s project charter defined the problem and scope as follows: “Identify causes of student attrition during and immediately after the first college year and cost-effective solutions to mitigate the slowly rising rate of first-year student attrition to be maintained at around 10 percent or less.”

Measure: Assess the current level of performance of the reviewed process. During this phase, current process capability is assessed to determine the performance level and potential gap. Relevant information will be gathered to help understand the problem at hand.

Analyze: Study data gathered through the measure phase to determine potential root causes to the stated problem and identify opportunities for improving the current process.. In this phase, statistical tools and quality methods are used to examine available measurement data and identify potential root causes. In this case, statistical analyses identified student-attrition risk factors by studying the correlations among various indicators, including pre-college academic performance, and student attrition status.

Improve: Apply lessons learned from the analyze phase to implement changes to the current process. During the improve phase, a quality improvement plan and activities were carried out to determine potential impact on first-year student retention.

Based on results from the analyze phase, the team identified three subpopulations of first-year students with increased risk of attrition. The first group was identified according to their mathematics background and preparation. The second group was identified based on students’ academic probation status during their first college year. The third group was identified through observers, such as coaches, instructors and residence assistants, who had frequent contact with first-year students to report any observed at-risk behaviors through their interactions with students during team meetings, in the classrooms or in the residence halls.

Control: Formalize the improved process, monitor and assure that the desired outcomes are sustained over time. In the control phase, a control plan is defined to monitor process performance under the new and improved process. The new process capability is determined, and desired outcomes of the process are verified. The results of the project are communicated to the constituent groups, and the new and improved process is transferred to the process owner.

Adaptation of Six Sigma methodology

Customer definition: Perhaps the most significant challenge when adapting Six Sigma in academia is defining “customers.” When viewing students as customers, they could fulfill multiple roles: raw materials for receiving instructions to learn new skills and concepts; customers for receiving services from various offices and departments; or as employees for receiving performance reviews for their classes and other learning opportunities.

Quality definition: Defining and measuring quality outside of the manufacturing sector can be more complex since perceptions are more individualized. For example, two people could judge the quality of the same process or service in very different ways, while customers are more likely to agree about the quality attributes of manufactured products.

Metrics definition: When difficulties arise in defining customers and the voice of the customer (VOC), defining and collecting the data necessary to study and evaluate the current process and estimate process capability can be daunting, if not impossible. This is particularly true with metrics associated with intangible aspects of the process. In this case, the Rose-Hulman team attempted to adapt the concept of defect as the number of first-year college students who left and did not return.

Culture and reward structures: Organizational culture can be a barrier to change, especially change driven by Six Sigma principles. When compared to manufacturing organizations, service organizations and higher education institutions have drastically different governance models and reward structures. This requires combining Six Sigma with other process improvement methods, such as lean, to promote change that may gain broader buy-in and impact throughout the entire organization.

Benefits of adopting Six Sigma

First, process documentation – as a product of adopting Six Sigma – in the form of project charter, process maps, control charts, cause-and-effect diagrams and other project report components helped communicate project activities and results with various constituent groups. The project documentation helped the project team to manage progress and stay focused as the project evolved.

Second, Six Sigma offered a structured framework to organize research activities and establish a baseline for the current process in a format that can be tracked over time and shared with a broader audience for review.

Third, depending on the nature of the data collected and the needs of the project, the Six Sigma methodology allows for flexibility in applying quantitative and qualitative tools.

Overall, Six Sigma helped the project team learn more about process capability and differentiate between common and special causes as the team investigated how student-retention rates fluctuated over time.