What is Six Sigma process improvement?

At the end of every business process is a desired result. You design each process with that result in mind and try to reach it as efficiently as possible. 

However, even if you succeed, that efficiency only lasts for so long. As market conditions change, customer demands shift, technology evolves, and employees gain skills and knowledge, your processes become less efficient.

What should you do when your process could use a polish? Start a process improvement project to get it back on track. One approach you can use is Six Sigma process improvement. Erwin Wils, Six Sigma expert and business strategist at Millionaire Life Strategy, shares insights on this approach below.

The Six Sigma process explained

Six Sigma is a statistics term. One sigma represents one standard deviation, the amount of variance from a calculated mean. 

The goal of Six Sigma is to refine processes until they produce stable, predictable results. This means limiting defects in processes to six sigmas — three above and three below the mean — which captures approximately 99.7 percent of a given data set. Any variance outside this range requires improvement.

For example, consider a company reviewing its delivery time. On average, the company takes 25 days to deliver its products but may deliver in as little as 20 days or as many as 30 days. Considering only whole days, Six Sigma dictates that all deliveries should take between 24 and 26 days — a much more predictable range.

Notably, Six Sigma has two methodologies:

  • DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, and control) is primarily for improving existing business processes.
  • DMADV (define, measure, analyze, design, and verify) is mainly for creating new business processes, products, and services.

Given the subject of this article, we’ll be focusing on DMAIC below.

Six Sigma process improvement: The DMAIC phases

1. Define

“You must first define the problem before trying to improve it,” says Wils. This includes developing a problem statement, goal statement, stakeholder chart, and set of process maps. It also means identifying the customer and their requirements. “These tasks will help provide a strong foundation on which to proceed through subsequent phases,” Wils explains.

2. Measure

Next up is quantifying and measuring the problem, which gives you a baseline as you seek improvement. However, Wils notes that if an event only happened once, it’s not necessarily a problem worth addressing. “It might just be a coincidence. But if it’s frequent and/or consistent, there may be waste in your process that you should investigate and eliminate.”

3. Analyze

“This is the most important phase because you’re focusing on figuring out the root cause of the problem,” Wils explains. “You’ll be asking a lot of questions. Try to let go of whatever assumptions you have about the process so you can approach the activity from an unbiased standpoint.”

Wils says it can be helpful to exclude aspects of the process that are working so you can get to the source of the problem. For example, assume you’re trying to assess a car issue. Does the car turn on? Is the battery providing power? Do the lights work? Are the fuses intact? With each element you eliminate, you get closer to the real problem. 

4. Improve

Once you’ve identified the root cause, it’s time to brainstorm potential solutions. Wils says it can be helpful to look at successful processes within your organization for inspiration. Shortlist the most promising solutions and game them out before implementing one.

5. Control

“If you’ve proven the process is optimized, be sure everyone fully understands the changes you’ve made,” Wils explains. “Then, institute controls that keep the process consistent, namely documentation, KPIs, and reporting. The latter two elements can help you identify unwanted deviations and alert you when intervention is needed.”

Tips for successful Six Sigma process improvement

To make the most of Six Sigma process improvement, Wils has several tips:

  • Bring in an external consultant. “We often don’t see our own blind spots,” says Wils. People are used to the process and don’t think about the details. A consultant can pose questions employees may not think to ask. “This also applies to process checkups after improvement.”
  • Pay attention to the human component. “Everyone listens to their favorite radio station: WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). This means you need to address how those executing the process will benefit from the optimization,” Wils explains. If employees don’t change, the process won’t either because people are habitual. “Be sure to include these employees in your improvement efforts so they feel connected to the outcome,” Wils says.
  • Ensure data is reliable and reproducible. “Remember this phrase: garbage in, garbage out. If you have unreliable data to start, your improvement efforts won’t mean much,” says Wils. Specifically, when quantifying and measuring the problem, be sure to test it to ensure it’s reproducible.

Last, to support your Six Sigma process improvement efforts, use a solution like Jotform, an easy-to-use form builder and information collection tool. Jotform has hundreds of pre-built form templates you can use to streamline your processes. 

For example, you can use survey forms to gauge customer and employee opinions and request forms to add efficiency to IT service requests and vacation requests. Plus, since everything is stored and organized in one place, you can easily review collected information to improve processes over time. Get started with a Jotform template today.

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