Six Sigma: A Simple Guide for Project Managers

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It’s been around for three decades, but Six Sigma can still be somewhat of an enigma. It can mean different things within various organizations or circumstances, but there is a way to broadly outline this business process improvement methodology and define its beginnings, its, rise, its use and its implementation.

There has been some backlash against Six Sigma over the recent years, some of which is warranted and will be discussed, but overall the process proves a valuable tool in reducing defects in product manufacturing, especially when paired with Agile thinking, lean manufacturing and capable project management tools.

What Is Six Sigma?

To start, let’s define the term Six Sigma. As noted, it’s a methodology used to improve the quality of an output in a process. It does this by first identifying, and then removing, the causes of defects. This is achieved via a set of quality management methods, which feature both empirical and statistical approaches. A staff with Six Sigma expertise is also usually hired to monitor the process.

Six Sigma was first introduced by Motorola engineer Bill Smith in 1986, where it was registered as a trademark. But it was when Jack Welch made it central to his business strategy at General Electric, about 10 years later, that it became popular in the broader business world.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Six Sigma Certification

Why Six Sigma?

The creed for Six Sigma can be broken down into these three assertions:

  1. The continuous effort to achieve stability and a predictable result from a process is what makes a business successful.
  2. There are characteristics to manufacturing and businesses processes that are definable and measurable. These characteristics can be analyzed to control and improve them.
  3. From the top down, the entire organization must be committed to sustaining quality improvements for them to be achieved.

What Are the Features of Six Sigma?

Six Sigma isn’t the first technique developed to improve process, but it differs from others in three significant ways:

  1. It is focused on measurable and quantifiable financial returns.
  2. Leadership is critical.
  3. Data and statistics are the basis of decision-making instead of assumptions or guesses.

what is the DMAIC framework in Six Sigma?

The DMAIC Roadmap

The core tool to the Six Sigma approach is the DMAIC roadmap, which is a more scientific method for project development. It’s a flexible, formalized problem-solving process that includes the following five steps:

  1. Define: This step is used to figure out the business problem, what the goal is, the potential resources, the project scope and what the timeline for completion is. This is often detailed in the project charter, where what you know about the project is collected and any facts related to the work are defined, objectives are set and the project team is formed.
  2. Measure: Now you want to establish a baseline, so you have something to measure against when you’re working on improving processes. This is where you collect all the data to put the work in context. The team will make the determination on what will be measured and how. The better the data, the better this system performs.
  3. Analyze: Here you are identifying what is preventing the progress of the process, so it can be eliminated. Again, you’ll use a data collection plan until you discover the root causes of the problem. This process involves complex analytical tools, some of which, to varying degrees of complexity include: listing and prioritizing potential causes of the problem; prioritizing root causes to improve steps; identifying how process inputs impact process outputs; creating detailed process maps.
  4. Improve: Test and implement solutions to the identified problems, using creative solutions to eliminate root causes and prevent them from coming up again. This is done with various brainstorming techniques and other problem-solving methods. It’s suggested that focusing on the simplest and easiest solution is best. Test those solutions, and figure out what risks are inherent. Then create an implementation plan, and execute improvements. A SIPOC diagram is often used in Six Sigma in order to perform this step.
  5. Control: In order to make sure that these improvements are sustainable, monitor them by creating a control plan. Be sure to update that plan as needed. You can develop a control chart to assess the stability of the improvements as the project moves forward, and guide the monitoring while planning for if that process becomes unstable.

There’s also a silent R that some organizations add to the DMAIC, which stands for Recognize. This is really a matter of priority, meaning that the team recognizes the right problem to focus on at the right time.

These DMAIC steps should be like a loop in that you need to repeat them and apply the changes to other processes in the project. Share the results with everyone on the project and even outside the organization to develop a network of support. It’s also smart to thank those participants to maintain good morale over what can be thorough and difficult work.

Lean Six Sigma

Six Sigma has proven itself adept at working with collaborative teams since the year 2000 when it developed into Lean Six Sigma. This was first codified in the book Leaning into Six Sigma: The Path to Integration of Lean Enterprise and Six Sigma by Barbara Wheat, Chuck Mills and Mike Carnell. Since then, Lean Six Sigma has been used in a variety of economic sectors, such as healthcare, finance and supply chain.

Lean Six Sigma finds synergy between these two managerial styles. Lean project management focuses on eliminating eight areas of waste: defects, overproduction, waiting, non-utilized talent, transportation, inventory, motion and extra-processing. Six Sigma, on the other hand, seeks improvements to the quality of process outputs by identifying and getting rid of the cause of errors to minimize the variability in production.

Together the two styles complement one another by having Lean expose where the problem in a process is emanating from, while Six Sigma is working to reduce that issue. This produces a positive cycle of improvements and continuous flow.

Lean Six Sigma then works together to cut production costs, while also improving the quality and speed of production, keeping the organization competitive. The Six Sigma part reduces variations and Lean has its sights on where there is waste and how to reduce it, all of which results in saving money. The two work well at efficiency, productivity and sound financial control.

Six Sigma and Agile

As Agile methods continue to grow from the software development egg in which they were hatched, the style has found itself saddling up with Six Sigma.

The Agile Manifesto states as its 12th principle that “at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” Agile teams are focusing on continuous improvements, which fits hand-in-glove with the creed of Six Sigma.

Therefore, Agile teams can find a structure to this principle in Six Sigma. It gives them a way to solve problems in their projects through empirical data, as well as providing a set of tools to do that. Agile and Six Sigma mix well.

Criticism of Six Sigma

Not everyone is sold on Six Sigma. Some, such as quality expert Joseph M. Juran, say that Six Sigma is nothing new. For him, only the terms have changed, but the basic approach to quality improvement remains the same.

The Harvard Business Review notes what it sees as shortcomings to the technique. For one, it doesn’t incorporate information technology. They also feel it’s elitist because it designates people called “black belts,” who are experts to analyze and design, rather than including the whole team.

There is also an issue with its process of incremental improvements, which some feel stands in the way of radical improvements. It also doesn’t fit well with work that is oriented towards finding innovative new methods and processes.

Since its creation, even a stalwart practitioner such as Jack Welsh has come around to admit that it’s not a holistic approach for everywhere in the company. But in product manufacturing, its ability to reduce defects to one in six standard deviations remains standard and provides results. The decision to apply it to your project is, of course, up to you.

Because of Six Sigma’s use of metrics to measure against a baseline to see where there are issues that can be resolved to make processes more efficient, the need for a dynamic project management software is essential. is a cloud-based tool that monitors progress with its real-time dashboard, making it easier to discover issues and quicker to implement solutions to them. Try it free for 30-days, and see for yourself with this trial.

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