Lean Six Sigma is a management philosophy that relies on data to drive decisions. It’s an approach to business management that focuses on removing waste and reducing mistakes in order to improve efficiency and, ultimately, profitability.

This process begins with identifying problems, which are often called opportunities for improvement (OFI). The first step in the problem-solving process is determining the critical factors that will either (1) highlight what’s working so it can be prioritized, or (2) identify problem areas that should be avoided or eliminated. Either option, done correctly, ultimately leads to higher success rates.

Overview: What is vital few?

VF is a concept that, when applied to a business’s inputs and outputs, also functions as a tool to identify the inputs that are working and also those that aren’t. The term is derived from the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, which asserts that the vast majority — about 80% — of all outcomes or outputs are the direct result of only 20% of all possible causes or inputs. This 20% is considered vital.

In business, one goal of the 80-20 rule is to identify the VF inputs that are potentially the most productive and make them the priority. Once managers identify factors that are critical to their company’s success, they can be given the most focus.

Alternatively, applying the 80/20 rule also identifies the VF inputs that are most problematic and responsible for the highest number of defects. When these factors are identified, the problems can then be resolved expeditiously, drastically reducing or even eliminating defects in the process. As Lean Six Sigma’s goal is to improve efficiency by eliminating defects, it is this scenario where the VF concept is most widely applied.

3 drawbacks to the vital few

While the LSS concept of VF can ultimately be helpful in a wide variety of situations, it does have some drawbacks.

1. If a business relies too much on the VF, it can create other problems

For example, if a business focuses too heavily on reducing defects in the manufacturing process, it may neglect other aspects of the business such as marketing, which is just as important to the success of the business. This can cause the business to experience a shortage of customers and a shortage of revenue, which can be just as detrimental to the success of a business as a defective product or service.

2. It only works if managers have enough knowledge and experience to accurately interpret the data

If a manager doesn’t have enough experience, or isn’t knowledgeable about the business, then they may be unable to identify which problems are causing the most defects. This can result in some problems being overlooked or not being addressed quickly enough, which can lead to even more defects.

In extreme cases, this could result in a situation where the critical few are being cut to reduce costs, which is a waste of the organization’s resources and can lead to a decline in the quality of the product or service being offered.

3. It can lead to complacency

When companies fall into the trap of becoming too focused on a few key problems, they can become too complacent. That complacency often leads to a cycle of constantly solving the same few problems, which becomes increasingly difficult as they grow. This can also lead to a company becoming known for those few problems, which makes it difficult to expand into new markets.

Why is vital few important to understand?

The importance of the VF lies not only in the fact that they are responsible for creating the most defects but also in the fact that they are the ones that can be most easily and quickly fixed. The vast majority of defects that occur in a manufacturing process can be traced back to the actions of the VF. By understanding what these few problems are, it becomes much easier to identify them, understand why they are happening, and then work to fix them.

This not only enables manufacturers to quickly identify and fix the most important problems, but also means that they can fix the smallest of problems faster and more efficiently.

An industry example of vital few

In the food industry, the VF concept is commonly used when a restaurant or food manufacturer has a food safety issue such as a recall or a food-borne illness outbreak. In this situation, VF is used to identify the exact cause of the problem so that it can be corrected. For example, if a lettuce recall is being issued because of an E. coli outbreak, the VF would identify which lettuce producer is causing the issue so that the producer can be removed from the production process until the issue is resolved.

In this way, the VF is used to identify the exact root cause of a problem so that it can be fixed.

3 best practices when thinking about vital few

There are a few different schools of thought when it comes to the concept of VF. One approach is to focus on the key initiatives that will have the biggest impact on your business. Another is to identify the critical few tasks that need to be completed in order to achieve your goal.

Whichever approach you take, it’s important to remember that not everything can be a priority. You need to focus on the things that will make the biggest difference, and let the rest fall by the wayside. Trying to do too much will only lead to frustration and failure.

1. Use data analytics to identify the VF

This can help you focus on the specific areas of your business where the biggest returns can be had. This will allow you to more effectively prioritize efforts and allocate your limited resources, both of which can be difficult decisions to make.

2. Know when to stop and consider other methodologies

This concept is only successful if the process is fast. It’s not just identifying the few causes for the many defects that is the point — the point is that you’re able to do it quickly. Processes should have time limits determined by experienced managers, and if those time limits are being exceeded consistently it may be time to recognize the VF concept is not applicable and other methodologies should be used.

All of these parameters, along with backup tools, should be established ahead of time.

3. Understand the difference between fixing problems and eliminating problems, and which you should do

The difference between fixing problems and eliminating problems in lean manufacturing processes is the degree to which each is intended to reduce waste and increase efficiency. Fixing problems is a strategy for ensuring that products, services, and processes meet customer or employee needs, while eliminating problems is a strategy for ensuring that waste is minimized and, in some cases, is achieved at zero cost.

Both can be used to improve a process, but eliminating problems is generally considered to be a more effective strategy for achieving a reduction in waste than fixing problems because it is easier to identify and correct the problems that cause a process to produce waste than it is to identify and correct the problems that cause a process to produce no waste.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about vital few

Q: How do you find the VF in a Pareto chart?

A: A Pareto chart is a graphical tool that allows you to identify the few factors that are causing the majority of a problem. In order to create a Pareto chart, you first need to collect data on the frequency of different problems. Next, arrange the data in descending order, with the most frequent problem at the top. Finally, draw a line across the data to create bars, and shade in the bar for the problem that is causing the most trouble. When the values you’ve shaded in total 20%, you’ve now isolated the important few factors that need to be addressed.

Q: What can be done to make VF more effective?

A: In order to make the VF more effective, it is important that we first understand what they are. The VF are the most important activities that lead to our success. They are the ones that we should focus on and devote the majority of our time and resources to.

The problem is that many of us are not effective at allocating our time and resources. We often spend our time on activities that are not important or that do not lead to success. We need to make sure that we are focusing on our VF and making the most of them.

Q: Are DMAIC and VF the same?

A: DMAIC and VF are similar in the sense that they are both focused on improving the efficiency of processes. They are also focused on the few major problems that lead to our success. DMAIC and VF are different in the sense that, while DMAIC is a process improvement approach, VF is a problem-solving approach.

Vital few: Constantly evolving

Now that a more thorough understanding of VF is had, there is one more critical key to remember: Just as customer needs change, so do processes, so do problems, and finally, so do methods of problem-solving. The VF concept may be universally applicable, but data can change.

Part of the beauty of the LSS methodologies is their adaptability. Business leaders and managers must always remember that as Lean tools are constantly evolving with the changing business landscape, so is VF, and so must your understanding of it.

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