Detail, Reason By Reason
No clarity on problem statement:
Trying to lead a DMAIC project without a clear problem statement is like trying to hit a bullseye when no one has even led you to the archery range and shown you where the targets are. If you have been assigned a project and are unable to get your Six Sigma leader or the project sponsor to clearly state the problem to be solved, you should immediately raise a red flag.
There are several reasons that leaders might charter a DMAIC project in the absence of a clear problem statement. In some cases, they know what the problem is but simply haven’t taken the time to clearly define it and are expecting you to do so as you develop the project charter in the Define phase. This is fine, as long as you are convinced that they know what the problem is and can give you enough information for you to follow through with the charter and the project. In other cases though, the inability of business leaders to provide a Black Belt with a clear problem statement is a sign that DMAIC may not be the appropriate course of action.
It may be a case of a leader wanting to make a specific business change and using a DMAIC project to "prove" that it is the right thing to do. (See "Solution in search of a problem" below.)
Or it may simply be a sign that leaders are not really clear what is wrong with a process or even which process is in need of performance improvement. In this case you as the project manager or other stakeholder should let the leaders know that you need more information from them in order to understand the project you're being asked to lead or even to confirm that DMAIC is the proper approach. In many cases a simple discussion will give you the details you need to move forward, but in others you will come to the realization that proceeding in the absence of a clear process problem to address would surely lead to a bad DMAIC project.
Six Sigma and the DMAIC methodology are highly data driven, and each phase of DMAIC requires data to substantiate assumptions about how the process is performing, what is causing poor performance, and how to counteract the root causes. In most cases a project is not chartered unless it is clear that sufficient data exists to assess process performance. Even then, once the project progresses and the problem is further understood, a project team may find that it is simply not possible to obtain enough data on the relevant process factors to conduct an effective DMAIC project. This may be because that part of the process doesn't cycle frequently enough, because data has not been gathered for a long enough time, or because data has not been gathered at all.
Regardless of when the discovery is made, a realization that insufficient data exists requires a formal discussion of whether the project can be adequately completed using the DMAIC methodology. In some cases the project scope or objective can be altered or a workaround can be developed to measure process performance in an indirect way. In other cases the project team may have to face the unfortunate decision that the DMAIC process cannot proceed.
Solution in search of a problem:
Particularly in organizations that are new to Six Sigma or have not fully embraced the philosophy, Six Sigma projects are sometimes chartered not to clarify a performance problem and uncover root causes, but instead to put a solution in place that leaders have already selected.
Some cases fall into the "Duh!" or "Just Do It" category, meaning that if the solution is obvious then DMAIC is completely unnecessary. Leaders should just implement the solution and use process management techniques to ensure it is sustainable. In other cases, however, such a project may be more of a political move, with a business leader attempting to push his favored process change under the guise of a systematic DMAIC project. In these cases it may quickly become apparent to the project leader that the solution is a "just do it." But more often the project team gets the project underway only to find that either a problem doesn't really exist or that the sponsor or business leader is only interested in supporting his own solution, not a thorough DMAIC project.
In this situation it is critical that the Black Belt and other savvy project participants address this problem either directly with the sponsor or leader or, if necessary, indirectly with that individual's superior or with a high-level Six Sigma leader. It does the company no good to devote extensive resources to a DMAIC project when either a simple project management approach is called for or a leader is putting his assumptions and wishes above empirical evidence.