How Non-Manufacturers Can Apply Six Sigma Principles

Lean and Six Sigma initiatives are popular amongst medium and large manufacturing firms. These data-driven approaches to managing quality, waste, and continuous improvement are ideal for complex manufacturing environments where a large volume of data can be collected and analyzed, however businesses of all sizes and sectors can use the strategies to improve their operational competitiveness.

Implementing a quality improvement project often requires analysis on highly complex processes with many variables. As a result, for those outside of manufacturing, lean may be an entirely foreign concept. Or, for those who have briefly looked at it, they may have been overwhelmed by the complexity of a fully-established Six Sigma initiative. While continuous improvement initiatives may not be required (nor beneficial) for non-manufacturers, there are definite benefits of adopting a systematized approach to process improvement.

Related Blog: Kaizen: The Road to Continuous Improvement

Understanding Six Sigma Strategy: DMAIC Framework

In this blog, I want to focus on a popular Six Sigma strategy that can be used by a range of companies to address process improvement. DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control. The process is a helpful way to help ensure your team:

  • Understands the problem being addressed; and
  • Has a structured and measurable way for tackling the problem.

DMAIC provides a formulaic way to move through a process improvement project and get to a desired outcome. It also provides your project team with documentation to support decisions and measure results over a long period of time.

Related Blog: How to Inspire Your Team: Communicate the ‘Why’ Behind Action

A breakdown of the five lean steps are as follows:

1. Define the Problem to Be Examined/Fixed

The definition stage’s goal is to clarify the problem – typically this will require at least a conversation with other members of your project team to ensure everyone is well aligned.

Some relevant questions to ask at this stage of the process include:

  • What is the process/product/service that is lacking?; and
  • What are the internal and external (customer/client/supplier) requirements?

In a manufacturing environment, definition may be complex and require several project sessions to really get to the root of the problem.

For other firms, it could be a very simple problem that needs to be addressed, such as a product not being delivered on time or project managers routinely losing control at a certain stage.

2. Measure the Root Problem in a Testable Way

In this stage, measure the problem as defined in step 1. You can quantify how the problem impacts you through complex measurement tools from the Lean toolkit, or you can simply measure the problem in whatever format makes the most sense for your project.

This can include a count, generating a report to show the number of instances, measuring the time between events, or other simple measures.

Project teams usually discover at this point that their ‘simple’ problem has a complex root:

  • There may be a higher number of inputs than initially assumed; or
  • The problem manifests itself in various ways (e.g. at different times, with different customer types, at different stages in the process, etc.).

The goal here is to not lose sight of the problem defined in step one. It’s worth noting other challenges that may arise or other problems you identify, but stay focused on the first problem.

3. Analyze the Problem and Develop a Data-Driven Solution

Now that your team has measured the problem and collected an appropriate amount of data, they need to step back and analyze it.

Here it’s very important that you have a good project team. You’ll want to have multiple skill sets since people will interpret data in different ways.

If the project is large enough and you have dedicated physical space for the project team, it’s helpful to have a whiteboard visualize and review data as a group. This stage can take a significant amount of time depending on the complexity of the project and the skill sets of the team.

At the end of this stage you will have identified the root cause(s) of the problem and a prescribed path for improvement.

4. Implement Changes to Improve Processes

Your team has solved the problem in theory, and now it’s time to develop and implement the new process. At this point, the team will make the required changes to existing processes, develop new tools, document new processes, and deploy in a test phase. If your new process does not provide the desired results, then the team can go back to the drawing board.

By piloting the new process, you can ensure the changes you prescribe will have the intended affect.

Although this step and the Analyze step are presented here as distinct from one another, it’s important to note that there is significant overlap between the two. Ultimately, it’s your business so you can modify this process as you see fit for your particular needs.

5. Control the Changes Through Documentation

If the new process is a success, you’ve addressed the problem well and you’re ready for full deployment. The next step is to document the new process, set up a training session, and implement.

Any stakeholder that could be involved in the new process should be informed. In some cases, this may mean involving external stakeholders, such as customers or suppliers.

This step is vital to ensuring your team will follow the new procedure and the benefits of the new process will be realized. Depending on the level of change, it may take time to fully implement, and you may want to stagger implementation over several phases.

The DMAIC Framework Should Be Adapted

DMAIC is a helpful framework, but it doesn’t need to be followed thoroughly. Depending on the complexity of your problem you may find that the Define phase takes longest, or perhaps the Measure phase could take a long time if you don’t have existing tools and systems for measuring your processes.

DMAIC can be used to help set the framework for addressing problems and process improvements, but like any Lean initiative, it will ultimately rely on the wider culture in-place.

For continuous improvement to take place, your entire team needs to be engaged and it needs to be normalized in your corporate culture. DMAIC is only a problem-solving framework; for it to be truly successful it needs to be a normal part of business operations.

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Rob holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Western University, and has published articles in international journals as well as given presentations throughout Canada and Portugal. His area of expertise lies in advanced manufacturing, international development, export market development, and automotive manufacturing. As a Program Manager at Mentor Works, Rob works with business owners to obtain funding to meet their growth strategies. Prior to joining Mentor Works, Rob worked extensively in various academic roles, software and ICT sales and development roles, and in quality control roles in the automotive industry.

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