Like morning leads the day, a well-defined, well-scoped Six Sigma project is more likely to be completed and lead to savings. A DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) project that starts directly at the Measure phase has the potential to be ditched as investigation of the current problem may open a can of worms that diverts attention from the original goal.

But in the real world, driven by daily pains and the need for instant fixes, projects may commence with Measure, Analyze and Improve pooled together in one giant step. This is great when the x’s (inputs) are small in number and their impact on the Y (output) is clearly known. But how often is that the case? For the most part, practitioners must complete Define at the start of any project. If they do not, they may miss valuable findings.

Building Consensus

Usually a significant amount of head scratching is done before practitioners can unveil the right x’s and have a clear understanding of their impacts on the Y. This is why the Define stage in the DMAIC model of Six Sigma is so important. Define consists of qualitative tools, such as project charters, problem statements, process maps and critical-to (CT) trees. These tools are important because they help answer these questions:

  1. What problem is the team trying to address?
  2. Who are the team members?
  3. What is the scope?
  4. What is the current state?
  5. What is the dollar-equivalent benefit of the project?
  6. Why is the project being done?
  7. What is the goal?

Because team members are human and miscommunication can happen, it is important to answer all of the above questions and record the answers in a “go-to” document. This can serve as a source of backup information when anyone asks “Why are we doing what we are doing?” This also helps build consensus about the current state, desired future state and any other goals.

Making Discoveries

In Define, teams may discover things they never knew existed. This typically occurs during the use of process flow and value stream mapping tools.

Why do these discoveries happen? Because in the daily running of operations, process owners are focused on getting the job done, and do not necessarily stop and analyze why they are doing something a certain way. The discoveries explain some of the drivers of variation and non-value-added work.

In the multiple roles an employee plays at work, it is hard to remember every detail. Define also acts as a refresher to the team members about the process, and sometimes this review causes team members to look at the process with a fresh pair of eyes.

Pitfalls of Skipping Define

As an example of the impact of Define, consider a project to improve capacity issues in a fabrication run. The fabrication unit was not meeting on-time delivery targets, and this was attributed to lack of capacity. Based on history and experience, the team decided to add another machining unit, which cost about $150,000, to improve capacity. This definitely improved customer service, but the result of the added unit was underutilization of machining units and a lot of idle time.

If this project had gone through the Define phase and utilized tools such as value stream and process mapping, the underutilization could have been avoided. During the project charter and tollgate reviews, the process improvement team would have identified the risks associated with adding a machine and would not have created this current scenario. They would have tackled the internal issues that were causing the capacity problems and ruled them out before submitting a proposal to spend $150,000. An acceptable amount of efficiency lost in order to make on-time deliveries was not established before the money was spent.

Define: A Positive Enabler

Practitioners should always use the Define tools because they can be an enabler for building consensus, crystal clear two-way communication and discoveries. They also can help team members to take a fresh look at processes, which will help keep their eyes on the ball and complete projects, as well as translate completed projects into bottom-line savings for the organization.

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