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DMAIC Phase 1: Define

written by: Heidi Wiesenfelder • edited by: Marlene Gundlach • updated: 5/22/2011

My introduction to this series gave you an introduction to the DMAIC process improvement methodology. Now let's look at the first DMAIC Phase: Define. We'll explore the goals and outcomes of this phase, and discuss tools such as the Six Sigma project charter, VOC, and SIPOC.

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    Introduction to DMAIC

    For a more complete overview of the DMAIC methodology, check out my article Introduction to DMAIC.

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    Objectives of Define Phase

    During the Define phase of a Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) project, the project leaders are responsible for clarifying the purpose and scope of the project, for getting a basic understanding of the process to be improved, and for determining the customers’ perceptions and expectations for quality. Also important are establishing realistic estimates for timeline and costs. All these things will ensure that the stakeholders are all on the same page regarding what is going to be done and how to evaluate the project’s progress and ultimate success.

    In some companies, a great deal of work is done prior to chartering a new DMAIC project, so that everyone involved is already aware of the need for the project and is sure that the project warrants the DMAIC treatment. In other environments, however, confirming that a project is suited for this model is also part of the Define phase.

    Some things to watch for when assessing a project’s suitability for DMAIC:

    • Is data available or easy to obtain?

    • Does leadership support exist for improving this process?

    • Is DMAIC really needed or is this a “just do it”: a problem with a known solution that should just be implemented?

    • Is the team trying to boil the ocean or is the scope reasonable for chartering as a DMAIC project?

    • Is the process directly related to a key outcome such as profitability, customer satisfaction, or employee satisfaction?

    Roles and resources also need to be clarified up front to avoid misunderstanding. The Process Owner, Project Leader (usually a Black Belt or Green Belt), and the Sponsor/Champion need to be clear on what is expected from them, how they will communicate, and how decisions will be made. Team members and their supervisors will need a realistic estimate of how long their participation will be needed and how many hours per week they are expected to spend on project work.

    The key tool for Define is the Six Sigma project charter. It should contain the standard information for a project management charter, such as purpose, scope, roles, budget, and expected outcomes. In addition, it is common practice with DMAIC projects to estimate the timeline for each phase, and to provide basic statistics that are already available and relevant to the project. This data may include the baseline cycle time or satisfaction rate, or even the baseline process sigma if it is already known.

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    Understanding the Process

    A core tenet of the Six Sigma philosophy is that it is usually the process that needs reworking when performance standards are not being met, rather than the people. Once we understand the process, we will have insight into the causes of inefficiency and frustration so that improvements can be made.

    Later in the project the process will be examined and mapped in great detail. At this point what is needed is a high-level understanding of the process. The team needs to be clear on what the process was established to accomplish, and what the outputs are. Also important is clarity on the start and stop points of the process, understanding of who the suppliers to the process and customers of the process are, and a description of the main steps in the process.

    A tool called a SIPOC is often used for this purpose. The name of the tool stands simply for Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs and Customers, and is a visual representation of each of these things. It may be tempting to assume that everyone already knows what the process is and what is involved, but don’t let assumptions play a role in your improvement project.

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    Understanding Customers & Quality

    The origins of Six Sigma reflect a focus on quality as defined by the customer. Before initiating an improvement initiative or implement process changes, it is crucial that the customers’ expectations for quality and current level of satisfaction are known. Too often business leaders think that they know what customers want and act accordingly, and the intended results do not manifest.

    In DMAIC we always let the customers of a process tell us how satisfied they are with the process and its results, we do not take someone else’s word for it. The tools for gathering this information are many: existing complaint and contact data, focus groups, interviews, and surveys are common. You may find that data already exists that provides a good picture of customer satisfaction and expectations, but more often it is necessary to take proactive measures to gather additional data.

    Once data is obtained, it is compiled and evaluated using a variety of techniques. The goal is to establish at least one Critical To Quality measure (CTQ): a customer requirement that is truly critical to the customer, that can be measured, and which can have a specification set that must be met. The process sigma will later be calculated based on the extent to which the process currently meets the specification.

    The Pareto chart is often used to categorize complaints or reported problems by category, so that the most frequent types can be identified. Market segmentation may be used to take into account major differences in the needs and expectations of different groups, such as wholesale customers and retail customers.

    An affinity diagram can help the project team group customer comments into categories in a variety of ways to explore how customers view the process and to assess where improvement resources should be directed. And fitting the data to a Kano model can make clear which of the customers’ needs are in most critical need of improvement.

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    Wrapping Up the Define Phase

    At the end of the Define phase, the team should have a completed project charter, a high-level process map, and one or more CTQs that will allow data to be gathered in the Measure phase. And in terms of mindset, all team members should have a good understanding of why the project is needed, how it will impact stakeholders, and how the project will proceed.

    Read my article "Introduction to DMAIC" for additional background information on the topic.

The Six Sigma DMAIC Process

This series provides an introduction to the Six Sigma DMAIC process, and a more in-depth look at each of the individual phases. You'll learn about the objectives of each phase and common tools to help you reach them.
  1. DMAIC Phase 1: Define
  2. DMAIC Phase 2: Measure
  3. DMAIC Phase 3: Analyze
  4. DMAIC Phase 4: Improve
  5. DMAIC Phase 5: Control