Customer expectations and behavior are constantly changing. Competition in nearly every industry seems to be intensifying. Profitability and growth now depend in large part on the efficiency of products and services and their speed to market.
Six Sigma is a process that organizations employ to optimize business processes for the most efficient and cost-effective approach while producing continuous product improvements.
In this article, we’ll explain the Six Sigma methodology, explore its benefits and challenges, and detail the five phases of Lean Six Sigma with examples.
What is the Six Sigma Methodology?
The Six Sigma methodology identifies defects and roadblocks that hinder performance, enabling companies to use strategies to streamline processes, decrease production variation, and improve the quality of products and services.
Six Sigma is a data-driven approach to establishing a culture committed to continuous process improvement. When implemented effectively and consistently, Six Sigma provides a framework for repeatable and systematic problem-solving.
What Is the Difference Between Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma?
Six Sigma focuses on creating rigid consistency to reduce process variation and enhance process control. Lean Six Sigma eliminates processes that do not add value to promote more streamlined workflows.
In short, Six Sigma emphasizes reduction in variation using processes such as:
- Statistical data analysis
- Design of experiments
- Hypothesis testing
Lean Six Sigma focuses on reductions in waste using processes such as:
- Workplace organization
- Visual controls
In most cases, organizations today incorporate both methodologies into their Six Sigma quality management practices.
What Are the Benefits of Six Sigma?
The benefits of Six Sigma and the DMAIC process include:
Improvements in Quality
By focusing on identifying and eliminating defects and wasted steps in processes, organizations can improve the quality of operations and products or services.
Increases in Efficiency
Six Sigma identifies roadblocks and inefficiencies in systems. Efficiency and productivity gains provide significant results in many cases. In manufacturing, for example, these efficiencies can improve quality, turnaround times, and cycle times for equipment.
More Efficient Decision Making
By putting quantifiable data at the heart of decisions, organizations can reduce making decisions based on intuition or assumptions. Instead, decisions are made based on facts and evidence and are measured against baselines for continuous improvement.
Improved Customer or End-User Satisfaction
When organizations can streamline processes to produce faster or higher-quality results, it improves customer satisfaction. This, in turn, can generate more loyal customers and higher customer retention levels.
There can be significant financial benefits from implementing a Six Sigma methodology. Increased efficiency reduces waste and defects, creates efficiencies and streamlines processes, and produces better customer satisfaction.
Organizations that utilize the five phases of Lean Six Sigma methodology can gain a competitive advantage in several ways, including delivering higher-quality products or services more efficiently and cost-effectively than their competitors.
Not to be overlooked in the five phases of Six Sigma are the benefits to employee engagement. Project teams typically include employees from various disciplines. Working together to understand problems and develop solutions encourages teamwork and is fundamental to creating a culture of continuous improvement.
Involving team members in the process also creates buy-in since team members have a stake in the success of the Six Sigma process.
What is DMAIC?
DMAIC is an acronym for the five phases of Six Sigma.
- D: Define
- M: Measure
- A: Analyze
- I: Improve
- C: Control
The DMAIC phases are an iterative process used to seek quality improvement by focusing on the process to create more efficient and permanent solutions. DMAIC provides the structure to the process, enabling project teams to use specific tools and deliverables that lead to process improvements. While most teams work through DMAIC in a linear fashion, it isn’t mandatory to do it this way. The process itself encourages team members to backtrack to previous steps, especially when additional information or insight is needed.
The Five Phases of Lean Six Sigma
Each of the five phases of Six Sigma is data-driven and focuses on standardizing an organization’s approach to problem-solving. So, let’s dig deeper into the DMAIC phases.
Phase 1: Define
In the define stage, team members work together to identify the information they’ll need to break down components of a problem or process and create smaller actionable terms. Rather than focusing on abstract goals, it seeks quantifiable and qualifiable data to clearly identify the objective of the project.
Teams will identify the Critical to Quality (CTQ) attributes as determined by the end-user or customer — called the voice of the customer (VOC) — and create a process map, including process inputs and process outputs.
For example, a manufacturing company has identified a problem somewhere in their production process that is leading to product defects outside of acceptable ranges but doesn’t know where or why these defects occur. In the define phase, they would design the project scope and establish objectives, such as reducing the number of acceptable defects in the production process to a specific number.
Phase 2: Measure
The measure step of the DMAIC phases of the Six Sigma process assesses current processes and capabilities. While the goal is to make process improvements, teams need a clear understanding of the current conditions to judge the effectiveness of any future changes. Without a baseline, it’s hard to measure if you’ve made any progress.
In this phase, team members will measure the current process and create a baseline for future comparison.
For example, this phase would identify the frequency of the defects and information about potential causes, such as production line speed or equipment breakdowns, deviations in material or suppliers, or other mitigating factors.
Phase 3: Analyze
The analysis phase of the Six Sigma methodology takes a deep dive into the data that’s been gathered to isolate root causes of inefficiencies and identify defects. Teams in this phase often create detailed subprocess maps for every step with the goal of eliminating and streamlining steps to improve performance and quality.
Teams might deploy several analysis tools, such as Pareto charts or fishbone diagrams, to analyze the root causes of the high defect rate.
Teams also analyze the performance and financial benefits of solving a problem or improving a process.
Phase 4: Improve
After identifying the root cause of any issues, this phase focuses on finding the solution or improvement. Common methods include deploying a design of experiment model to isolate variables and test hypotheses until obstacles are uncovered.
Once process improvements are identified, teams create a proposed solution and then implement pilot programs to test, ensuring solutions meet project objectives and are financially viable.
As an outcome of analyzing the data, teams might redesign the production process, recommend upgrading equipment or maintenance procedures, or provide additional training to operators.
Phase 5: Control
The final step of the five phases of Lean Six Sigma involves documentation of the solutions created for process owners. This includes actionable steps, timelines, and milestones for implementation. In this phase, the control plan details the daily workflow.
The project team then monitors the project for a prescribed period to make sure the process meets performance expectations in real-world environments before turning it over to process owners.
In the control phase, organizations might implement control charts to tightly monitor production output and defect rates, the impact of operator training, and any other solutions deployed.
Each of the five phases of Six Sigma works together to create a repeatable template for improving business processes. When fully integrated into an organization’s culture, it enables teams to innovate new solutions, measure effectiveness and efficiency, and create quantifiable process improvements.
Challenges with Implementing Six Sigma
Even though Six Sigma can help your team become more efficient and cost-effective, there are implementation challenges when it comes to DMAIC phases.
The five phases of Lean Six Sigma examine increasingly minute details and micro-steps in every aspect of task completion. This can be challenging for team members to accomplish without experienced project managers that are trained in Six Sigma methodologies. Organizations need team members that understand statistical training and quantifying data points effectively in order to successfully implement this methodology — it’s not something you can pick up on the fly.
Implementing Six Sigma Tools
There’s also a learning curve for the diverse set of tools required to uncover root causes and validate potential solutions. Throughout the DMAIC process, teams may need to be proficient in using tools such as:
- Pareto charts
- Gage R&R
- Process capability upper and lower bounds
- Attribute agreement analysis
- ANOVA statistical modeling
- Regression equations
- Control charts
- Statistical process control (SPC)
- Value stream mapping
Other tools may also be needed depending on industry and functionality. As you can see, some of these tools are incredibly specific and scientific, so it can be tricky to implement if someone on your team isn’t familiar enough with them while going through the five phases of Lean Six Sigma
Effective Six Sigma implementation required buy-in across the wider organization, starting at the very top. Without proper funding, resources, and continued support, the process can be ineffective. In some cases, this leads to incomplete solutions, lack of follow-through, or failure to embrace workplace changes.
To be successful, Six Sigma needs to be embraced and become part of the company culture.
Fast Track Your Career in Quality Management
Efficiently deploying Six Sigma methodologies and DMAIC phases requires training and expertise. Professionally-trained and certified Six Sigma professionals can make substantive contributions to organizational improvement and earn a lucrative career as a Six Sigma expert.
If you are looking to fast-track your career in Quality Management, an accredited Six Sigma course can help. You can get hands-on experience and mentoring as you solve real-world business processes and learn about:
- Agile management
- Lean management
- Six Sigma Green Belt
- Lean Six Sigma Black Belt
- Quality management
- Digital transformation
Become a Lean Six Sigma Expert with the post graduate program from UMass Amherst Isenberg School of Management. To learn more about the Lean Six Sigma course, download the program brochure. This program is accredited by the International Association for Six Sigma Certification (IASSC) and has professors who can share real-world experiences to help bring these complicated concepts to life.