Six Sigma for Dummies

Six Sigma is a five-step approach (DMAIC process) that drives unwanted variation from products and processes.  By understanding and controlling underlying root causes, teams fix problems at the source, resulting in the lowest possible cost of quality for a given process.

It’s no wonder that so many feel like ‘dummies’ when it comes to Six Sigma:  every significant  process improvement tool developed over the years has been placed under the Six Sigma umbrella, along with a  healthy dose of statistics.  But the good news is that most processes can be improved with a well defined problem, the right team, and a simple set of process improvement tools. So the Pareto Principle applies to the Six Sigma toolkit itself:  a small handful of process improvement tools (which existed long before the Six Sigma approach was created) will solve the majority of the problems that a team will encounter – tools involving very little in the way of statistics.  Too many Six Sigma practitioners and consultants make Six Sigma about the tools, and not about the results.  Stay focused on results and learning the best methods to achieve those results, and you will become a “designated-hitter” in your organization.

So what are the key ingredients and tools that will solve the majority (let’s say 4 out of every 5) of process improvement challenges?

  • A clearly defined problem statement that is narrow enough in scope for the team to succeed.
  • Data to support where the process is currently, in terms of defects per million, scrap cost, sigma-level, or whatever measure is going to be improved upon.
  • A project team made up of those who understand the process the most, and a team leader who is respected, understands the basics of DMAIC, and can keep the team on track.
  • Positive management support – team members will need time to collect data and work on the project.

If the above ingredients are in place, the team has an excellent chance of succeeding.  Now for some specific tools to deploy during the problem solving process –

  • Develop a flow-chart of the current process.
  • Develop a fact-based Pareto Chart.
  • Conduct a 5-why analysis that addresses the significant pareto items.
  • Brainstorm and verify possible solutions – in many cases, those closest to the process (those working with it every day – make sure they are part of the team) know what needs to be done – oftentimes a Six Sigma project simply brings the necessary focus to implement long-overdue fixes.
  • Implement the fixes.
  • Verify that the fixes have improved the process.
  • Implement controls, audits, etc., where necessary to ensure the fixes are sustained over the long run.

That’s it.  The remaining 20% of the problems might need more advanced methods inside the DMAIC toolkit.  Also learn about the Shainin Methods and read Keki Bhote’s World Class Quality if you work in the manufacturing field.   Understanding those tools will place you in the top 1% of all problem solvers.