Factory ‘Black Belt’ for Financial Firms

Shahbaz Shahbazi News

Process Ark applies quality standards to financial processing

BY MICHAEL MUCKIAN

After Sheila Shaffie attained her “black belt” in quality control processes for manufacturing, she learned that those skills could transfer to the financial services industry. The realization came in 2001 when a recruiter from Bank of America Corp. wanted to hire Shaffie.

Shaffie remained at GE Medical Systems, Waukesha, and declined the job at Charlotte N.C.-based Bank of America to implement Six Sigma quality control processes. However, the idea was planted, and Shaffie is taking her knowledge of quality control systems she mastered at GE Medical, now known as GE Healthcare Technologies, and applying them to the financial industry.

Shaffie and husband, Shahbaz Shahbazi, another alumnus of GE’s Waukesha operation, launched Process Ark, a quality consulting firm, in February that aims to serve financial institutions. Shaffie, 30 and Shahbazi, 38, a former GE marketing officer, left GE late in 2003. The pair want to consult with financial firms like banks, helping them streamline transaction cycles to reduce operating costs and increase profitability.

Their consultancy blends Six Sigma with lean manufacturing quality methodologies in ways the pair say will help transactional businesses develop more efficient capabilities. Process Ark, a name born by a mistake during a brainstorming session with friends, refers to the Biblical ark as a carrier of new ideas, said Shahbazi. The “process” in the name is the pair’s hybrid of Six Sigma and lean quality initiatives, he said.

Shaffie and Shahbazi see significant opportunities in the financial services industry. “We found an opportunity in the huge wave of quality development that the financial sector is leveraging,” said Shaffie, Process Ark’s president.

Bank of America is currently using Six Sigma standards to blend its operations with merger partner FleetBoston Financial Corp., Boston, which concluded April 1. Process Ark is currently not involved in the process, Shaffie said. The firm is negotiating with three prospective clients — two Milwaukee-area financial firms and one French utility company — for possible future work. Shaffie declined to disclose the identity of those companies.

HOME OFFICE

Process Ark, financed by the pair’s personal savings, currently operates from a home office at 1888 N. Water St., Milwaukee, and temporary space in the Honey Creek Corporate Park, 125 S. 84th St., also in Milwaukee. Process Ark is seeking space for a permanent 3rd Ward office in Milwaukee, which it hopes to occupy by June 1.

Shaffie and Shahbazi are the only employees of Process Ark. The firm contracts with five consultants, two of whom have experience with GE in upstate New York.

Shaffie attained Six Sigma “master black belt” status, the highest mastery level possible, while working in GE’s plants in Mexico and The Netherlands from 1999 to 2001. Shaffie and Shahbazi moved to GE’s Waukesha operation in 2002 and she soon was applying quality protocols to the firm’s medical equipment leasing operation.

Six Sigma’s application to financial transaction processing, an operation often similar to manufacturing in its attention to detail, intrigued Shaffie. Process Ark’s hybrid program combines the statistically based Six Sigma approach with the more intuitive lean methodology, which is more commonly known in the context of lean manufacturing.

Process Ark’s combination of lean methodology and Six Sigma protocols is designed to carry transactional businesses through the full quality cycle, said Shaffie. The result is improved productivity and reduced error ratios for any business that applies the strategy, said Shahbazi, Process Ark’s chief operating officer.

Six Sigma standards, which utilize roughly 30 different quality measures, must be adapted to the financial transaction environment to be successful, said Jack Bucalo, corporate senior vice president for service excellence at Fiserv Inc., the Brookfield financial data processing firm. Some financial institutions have already used the program to improve their productivity, he said. “It’s fair to say that there’s been some successes through use of adapted Six Sigma standards,” said Bucalo.

Six Sigma standards form the foundation for the ISO 9000 processes in application at Metavante Corp., the Brown Deer data processing arm for Marshall & Ilsley Corp. The strategy that a firm like Process Ark applies to those standards will determine the consulting firm’s success, said Brian Hurdis, Metavante’s executive vice president and chief information officer.

MEETING WITH INVESTORS

Process Ark’s approach may be attractive to outside investors, said Tim Keane, entrepreneur-in-residence and director of Marquette University’s Golden Angels Network, made up of local venture capitalists.

“I’ve been introducing them to Golden Angels members to see if anyone is interested,” said Keane, who also spent part of his career at GE Medical. Process Ark has taken initial steps to trademark its specific blend of Six Sigma and lean methodologies, but applications for intellectual property rights haven’t yet been filed, said Shaffie.

The firm’s process includes initial consulting, management oversight and process follow-through to make sure results of the change are sustainable over time, Shahbazi said.

Past attempts to force manufacturing quality standards on non-manufacturing business have failed, said Jay Sugar, principal of Jay Sugar & Associates, a Chicago firm that matches quality consultants with clients. That likely won’t be the case with Process Ark, he said. “It seems like they’re on to something that’s pretty rare,” said Sugar.

© 2004 American City Business Journals Inc.