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Six Sigma Tools Still Fit in Projects Lacking Data

In organizations struggling through the early phases of Six Sigma implementation, practitioners often find themselves doing projects with little or no data. Sometimes they can begin collecting the needed data, which causes delays in the project. In other situations, where past information is critical to understanding the evolution of the project, but the data is not recoverable, practitioners can poll experts in the process and use those opinions as data. In the worst of situations, there is just no way to gather any data at all for baseline calculations or analyses. This could occur when all experts are unavailable because of layoffs or job changes.

Many would say that the Lean Six Sigma process cannot be used in these cases. After all, Six Sigma is based on data. However, there are many good reasons for practitioners to use the methodology, tools and approaches of Lean Six Sigma, even if they have no data.

Why Use the Lean Six Sigma Process?

The Lean Six Sigma process provides an excellent framework for projects. Some specific benefits:

  • It provides a structured roadmap to eliminate the two-step process most organizations use, which consists of problem and solution. Six Sigma forces practitioners to define, plan, analyze, develop solutions, pilot changes and sustain results. This drives project management thinking.
  • Many of the tools characterized by Six Sigma are just as valuable in any project. For example, the failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) is useful in several ways in most projects:
    1. To characterize the current, as-is process
    2. To predict issues in the proposed process prior to implementation
    3. To characterize the final process that is put in place
  • Measurement systems are normally created that can be used by management on the project involved as well as other organizational needs.
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Looking at the DMAIC phases in detail shows how the use of the Six Sigma processes and tools can benefit practitioners, even in the absence of data.

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Define Phase

Nearly all of the tools in Define can be utilized without data:

  • The project charter is a great way to identify the business case, the problem, potential goals and team member’s roles and responsibilities.
  • The critical-to-quality matrix and tree can focus on those areas important to the customer.
  • The high-level process map (SIPOC) gives a good view of the process, the project’s scope and boundaries. It forces practitioners to think process rather than solutions.
  • Other Define templates can be used to assess readiness for change and stakeholder support.

Obviously, in the absence of data, the problem and goals will be qualitative in nature, but practitioners should be able to begin their quest for improvement.

Measure Phase

The following Lean Six Sigma approaches can be utilized in Measure without data:

  1. The detailed process map can help with understanding the process. It also can give ideas as to where particular measures can be captured and even suggest the nature of the metrics.
  2. In the absence of any historical data, a value stream analysis can be performed from the detailed process map using recently collected data and expert opinions and observations. Any Six Sigma project focused on cycle time improvement can benefit from this effort, but even those projects focusing on other areas can add value via this analysis.
  3. The operational definitions can still be defined here, although they may be qualitative. Practitioners can set the stage for data collection and measurement through any quantitative definitions needed.
  4. At this point, practitioners can perform an initial FMEA to document the current, as-is process weaknesses.
  5. The fishbone diagram and other methods can be used to identify and prioritize possible x’s. In most cases, practitioners can begin collecting the needed data now by implementing a data collection plan.
  6. Once the data collection plan is implemented, it is possible to perform a measurement system analysis (MSA) on the newly collected data.
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By this time, the no-data project may have converted to a more typical Six Sigma project, an practitioners can continue with normal deliverables, such as the baselines, process capability/sigma level calculations and financial analyses.

Analyze Phase

While Analyze is most heavily impacted by lack of data, practitioners can still take advantage of Six Sigma thinking if they do not yet have data. Two major outputs of this phase are 1) the vital few x’s and 2) root causes. The methods and procedures associated with these deliverables can be used without much data. The key difficulty, at this point, is the inability to graphically or statistically prove any hypotheses. The best that practitioners can do may be to give impressions and observations of process stakeholders, participants and experts.

Improve Phase

Here, practitioners can develop solutions, assess risk, use a selection matrix and select solutions for trial. This will not be very precise in the absence of data, and will likely make solutions more global rather than specific, but it may still add significant value. Any cost benefit analysis may be at a high level. Obviously, any data collected during pilot activities can be well utilized. But practitioners will often have difficulty meeting the power and sample size standards to close the Improve phase.

Control Phase

Given the data collected during the earlier phases, it will be possible to work the Control deliverables as usual due to especially from the pilot activities in Improve. If practitioners are not able to prove their results graphically and/or statistically at this time, they may have to determine project closure from the process participants, owners and experts. While making decisions in this way is not desirable, it may be the only alternative.

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