How Six Sigma has reshaped legal at Oracle

How Suchitra Narayen used her Six Sigma black belt to simplify process and create a legal infrastructure at Oracle

“Life takes you in interesting directions, no matter what you have planned,” says Suchitra Narayen, associate general counsel of supply chain at Oracle. Narayen’s career has taken many unexpected turns over the past 25 years, but being flexible enough to work in different firms and industries, in Canada and the United States, and eventually in-house, she has developed a diverse set of skills and knowledge that has taken her beyond what she ever imagined in law school.

Narayen was hired at Sun Microsystems in 1999, which was acquired by Oracle in 2010. That merger allowed Oracle to expand from software and services into hardware for the first time. It also provided Narayen (who accepted her current position in the merger) with a blank canvas. “There was no legal infrastructure for hardware or supply chain when I came on board,” she says. “I was given an incredible opportunity as well as the responsibility to build it.”

“So often, the most difficult part of accepting a new way of doing things is overcoming the fact that it’s unfamiliar.”

The task was to build a team; develop templates, processes, and requirements for procedures that didn’t exist yet; and do so in a way that was cohesive with Oracle’s existing company culture and established expectations.

It was a massive undertaking. Fortunately, Narayen’s experience, skills, and Six Sigma black belt provided a natural solution.

Six Sigma is a methodology for designing or improving processes. It is a set of tools and analytical techniques to identify problems, solve them, and sustain the resulting improvement. It is a robust way of developing effective processes for users, and it has many applications.

While Oracle did not mandate the Six Sigma approach, it was the most natural choice for Narayen, so she began training her team in its methods. “So often, the most difficult part of accepting a new way of doing things is overcoming the fact that it’s unfamiliar,” says Narayen. “I was persistent in asking people to try very small bites at first, so they would realize the benefits through their own experience.”

Part of that experience was a shift in mind-set as team members began looking at everything as a process that could be analyzed and improved. They began collecting and organizing existing data, and then assessing it in the context of a bigger picture, analyzing it for inefficiencies.

The next step was to break down the data into categories so it could be addressed and refined. When considering old materials, for example, Narayen and her team were able to reduce a 12-page form down to only three, leaving a simple form that was far easier for users to complete. “That immediate simplification reduces the negotiation cycle and terms to be reviewed,” says Narayen. “It is much more sustainable.”

Language was another key component to applying Six Sigma methods, both by simplifying complex language within forms, and in putting data behind subjective descriptions. For example, when referring to “lots of issues,” it was important to establish what the word “lots” actually meant. “If we were going to take action,” says Narayen, “We were going to make sure it was focused in the right area.”

It was also important to clearly identify responsibility within the team and to consistently communicate with each other. Together, Narayen’s team simplified systems, forms, and templates, as well as the way they communicated those systems with nonlegal colleagues and internal clients. “The key to Six Sigma is that it’s practical and simple,” says Narayen. “It’s a set of versatile, easy-to-use tools that are applicable in many situations.”

Thanks to simplification, consolidation, and increased efficiency, users at Oracle have saved hours through streamlined hardware-related processes. Now, after years of thorough analysis, Narayen’s team is primarily focused on sustaining the improvements they’ve made. “We have come a long way, but we are still looking at what tweaks we can make,” says Narayen. “Our job is never fully finished.”

To maintain the team’s internal agility, Six Sigma methodology has been built into the training of all new employees. The team engage in quarterly reviews, as well as an annual reviews of all key processes. They assess issues and identify frequently asked questions to determine where those questions should be directed and how they should be consistently answered.

Narayen is also careful to remember that their work is part of a much bigger picture. “Our goal is to develop the most effective process for users—to make sure the task is done correctly the first time and that work is done collaboratively,” she says.

That collaboration comes through finding the connecting points between their legal team and Oracle’s greater business goals. It also means working closely with internal clients and other teams to understand their processes and ensure that, when they overlap, both perspectives are satisfied. “There are so many places of natural synergy within Oracle,” says Narayen.

Amid constant change, Narayen emphasizes it is important to always be learning. “You have to be curious and have the stamina to know that your work is making a difference.” For Narayen, Six Sigma has offered a powerful way to lead others into making a difference at Oracle. “It has been a unique and wonderful opportunity to build this team and infrastructure.”