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The Traditional Six Sigma Approach

The Six Sigma concept started out as a problem-solving process. The problems generally concerned eliminating variability, defects, and waste in a product or process, all of which undermine customer satisfaction. Six Sigma practitioners call this original method DMAIC (pronounced "duh-may-ick")—Design, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. The five steps are as follows:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Measure the process and gather the data that is associated with the problem.
  3. Analyze the data to identify a cause-and-effect relationship between key variables.
  4. Improve the process so that the problem is eliminated and the measured results meet existing customer requirements.
  5. Control the process so that the problem does not return. If it does return, it should be controllable using a well-designed control plan.

The DMAIC process is easy to learn and apply. It provides strong benefits to those who follow its simple steps using a small, focused set of tools, methods, and best practices. The original pioneer of Six Sigma, Motorola, used the approach to eliminate variability in its manufacturing process and better meet basic market requirements. Companies that find success in using this approach train small teams to adhere to this approach without wavering in their completion of specific project objectives. These projects typically last six to nine months. Companies learn the DMAIC process and apply the tools much like a well-trained surgical team conducting an operation. They are focused, they are enabled by their project sponsors, and they deliver on the goals specified in their project charter.

The key elements in a DMAIC project are team discipline, structured use of metrics and tools, and execution of a well-designed project plan that has clear goals and objectives. When large numbers of people across a multinational company use the simple steps of DMAIC, objectives and result targets are much harder to miss. If everyone solves problems differently, nonsystematically, they become one-offs. Company-wide process improvement initiatives break down. Cost and waste reduction are usually haphazard. The corporation has difficulty integrating and leveraging the improvements across the enterprise. In this undisciplined environment, cost reduction and control are unpredictable and unsustainable.

Lean Six Sigma modifies the DMAIC approach by emphasizing speed. Lean focuses on streamlining a process by identifying and removing non-value-added steps. MIT pioneered the Lean approach in a manufacturing environment. A "leaned production" process eliminates waste. Target metrics include zero wait time, zero inventory, scheduling using customer pull (rather than push), cutting batch sizes to improve flow, line balancing, and reducing overall process time. Lean Sigma's goal is to produce quality products that meet customer requirements as efficiently and effectively as possible. This can be readily applied to the process steps to develop sales collateral or participation in a trade show.

If a process cannot be improved as it is currently designed, another well-known Six Sigma problem-solving approach can be applied. The DMADV process is used to fundamentally redesign a process. Sometimes it may also be used to design a new process or product when new requirements emerge. The five steps are as follows:

  1. Define the problem and/or new requirements.
  2. Measure the process and gather the data that is associated with the problem or in comparison to the new requirements.
  3. Analyze the data to identify a cause-and-effect relationship between key variables.
  4. Design a new process so that the problem is eliminated or new requirements are met.
  5. Validate the new process to be capable of meeting the new process requirements.

A second redesign approach has been developed to incorporate elements from a Lean Six Sigma approach—the DMEDI process. This methodology is essentially similar to DMADV, but it uses a slightly different vocabulary and adds tools from the Lean methodology to ensure efficiency or speed. The steps are as follows:

  1. Define the problem or new requirements.
  2. Measure the process and gather the data that is associated with the problem or new requirements.
  3. Explore the data to identify a cause-and-effect relationship between key variables.
  4. Develop a new process so that the problem is eliminated and the measured results meet the new requirements.
  5. Implement the new process under a control plan.

Whether you use DMADV or DMEDI, the goal is to design a new process to replace the incapable existing process. This is still the classic Six Sigma for problem-solving. The classic methods aim to improve processes and get them under control. They all build on similar fundamentals:

  • Tool-task linkage
  • Project structure
  • Result metrics

Once this is done, however, another form of a Six Sigma-enabled process is required to expand beyond problem-solving.

The new frontier for Six Sigma is in problem prevention, which should occur as part of your daily workflow. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Six Sigma for Marketing and Six Sigma for Sales, like Design for Six Sigma and Six Sigma for Research and Technology Development, are structured tools-tasks-deliverables sets for problem prevention during the phases and gates of product portfolio definition and development, research and technology development, product commercialization, and post-launch product-line management processes.

The traditional "reactive" DMAIC and Lean methods should be used for their intended purposes—to reduce variances, cut costs, and streamline processes. We mean no disrespect when using the terms "traditional" or "old-style." We are trying to define the future of Six Sigma. By necessity, we have to draw a distinction between the original application and a new approach that transcends problem-solving, cost-cutting, and reactive methods. The emerging application of Six Sigma builds on the fundamentals but travels on a different financial journey—seeking top-line growth. Controlling costs is important, but creating sustainable growth is equally important, if not more so. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Use the appropriate tool for a given task. Both the traditional and new Six Sigma methods add value. Use the right tool, at the right time, to help ask and answer the right questions.

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