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Steps in Six Sigma Methodology

written by: Heidi Wiesenfelder • edited by: Marlene Gundlach • updated: 3/4/2011

Six Sigma is a philosophy and methodology for managing processes and performance. It goes beyond just isolated improvement projects, and is best implemented using a system of components designed to clarify an organization's goals, stakeholders, and needs. All these steps contribute to its success.

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    Establish Roles

    6six Six Sigma is most successful when leadership is truly committed to the philosophy and methodology it entails. In larger companies, a Director or other high-level employee takes the lead role in creating and guiding Six Sigma efforts. Also for large-scale efforts, Black Belts should be trained up front as they will be responsible for leading improvement projects, and in some cases for advising process owners on establishing appropriate metrics and procedures.

    Within each operational area of an organization, the Process Owners need to be identified. These are the individuals who will be responsible for tracking their group's processes and performance and determining what action to take when improvement is needed. Green Belt training may also be established so that Process Owners and other key employees have the basic understanding and tools for working with Black Belts and managing processes.

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    Create a Dashboard

    Once personnel are in place, the team needs to start at the highest level, by determining how it defines the organization's success. In its simplest form, success for a for-profit entity is typically defined using measures of profitability and shareholder satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and employee satisfaction. For nonprofits and other organizations serving the community, the definition will include measures of alignment with the mission, achievement of the mission and vision, and satisfaction of donors, employees, and the community.

    The dashboard is essentially a summary of the key metrics for an organization. In the early stage it will likely consist solely of metrics related to results, but as time goes on the team will establish input measures that strongly influence results, and those will be included as well. Many measures can be incorporated into a dashboard, so it is the team's responsibility to clarify its own values and ensure those values are reflected in a balanced dashboard.

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    Establish Performance Expectations

    Now that the key metrics have been clarified, the next step is determining what level of performance in each area is acceptable. For instance, what threshold level of customer satisfaction does the company expect to maintain, and how much should sales increase year over year? These performance levels can be incorporated into the dashboard in a variety of ways, for instance by showing in green any metric that meets the performance requirement, in yellow or orange any metric that is at risk of shifting out of spec, and in red any metric that is not at an acceptable level.

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    Identify Improvement Needs

    Once an area has its dashboard in place, leaders should be regularly monitoring process performance. When performance does not reliably meet the established requirement, leaders will need to determine whether and how to act. Typically there will be quite a few opportunities for improvement at any given time, so decisions will be necessary regarding which hold greatest priority. The Six Sigma leadership team should establish a standard method of prioritizing potential improvement opportunities, and of determining what type of methodology is best for each case.

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    Determine Improvement Approaches

    In many cases, the reasons for inadequate performance are fairly obvious, and the solution is equally obvious. In those cases, a Six Sigma project should not be chartered, instead the business manager should "just do it" and address the problem. In other cases, the details of a problem are not known, or the causes of a problem are not clear. For those situations the DMAIC process is ideal, and chartering a DMAIC project would be the best move. In some cases, usually in organizations further along with their Six Sigma implementation, a design project (DMADV or DFE) can be initiated to create a new process or product or to completely re-create a process that is fundamentally not working.

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    Follow Improvement Methodology

    For any process improvement projects that are established, the methodology should be followed closely. For instance for a DMAIC project, a project team is created, and the team works through the standard DMAIC phases: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control. Similarly, a design project should follow the standard methodology chosen.

    Once the improvement goal has been achieved, the project is closed out, and the dashboard is updated to reflect the new performance level. Additional improvement initiatives may then be chartered based on new findings uncovered during the original project, or based on priorities established earlier for potential projects.

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    Maintain the Framework

    Improvement projects have built-in steps to ensure that the gains established by each project are maintained. At a higher level, a successful Six Sigma initiative requires continuous attention to ensure that the established procedures, culture, and responsibilities are maintained. On an ongoing basis, leadership should be training employees, updating the dashboard with current performance levels and changes to key metrics, and revisiting priorities and procedures for selecting projects. Documenting these high-level procedures will also prove beneficial as employee turnover occurs and the individuals involved change.