Six Sigma: the Art of Solving Problems

According to USA Today, McDonald’s sells 75 burgers every second.

That’s around 6.48 million every day. Or 2.36 billion burgers a year.

And you know, whichever location you bag that burger, you’re going to get that same familiar taste that’s distinctly McDonald’s.

The food chain may not be the best burgers in town, but they are deliciously consistent around the globe. Go to any McDonald’s location and you know exactly what you’re going to get. You already have a sense of the experience on offer. Complex store operations are standardized to the second, to the millimetre. (Meanwhile, you’re still wondering how to make your omelette taste good every morning.)

So, how are multinational companies like 3M, Amazon, and Bank of America and McDonald’s able to do this?

What Is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma is a method for product and process standardization—effectively stamping out defects and various forms of waste from a business. In effect, it’s a way to guarantee product quality at the most efficient cost structure possible.

An enterprise able to do this enjoys plenty of advantages downstream, including higher profits, shorter production times, stronger branding, customer loyalty and competitive prices. It’s little wonder a lot of leading businesses implement Six Sigma initiatives.

six sigma problem solving

“Six Sigma” is a statistical term that means for every 1 million products, only 3.4 items are found to be defective and rejected. So, for example, in the case of a fast food joint selling hamburgers, out of 1 million burgers, as few as 4 burgers are subpar. This would include all sorts of defects and deficiencies like burgers in the wrong size, missing an ingredient, cooked improperly, not prepared on time, placed in the wrong container, given to the wrong customer etc.

To be this precise in production requires one to do a process review, anticipating the myriad of ways things can go wrong. Enter Six Sigma’s DMAIC approach—the gold standard for problem-solving. It is, among many others, a very effective tool for cracking the knottiest of business problems.

Let’s take a closer look at DMAIC next.

DMAIC Process

DMAIC stands for Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control. It’s a problem-solving framework at the core of Six Sigma. DMAIC is used to look closely into an existing process in the hopes of optimizing it.

Each of the 5 letters corresponds to a phase, with each phase being reasonably complex and requiring a specific set of tools.

Let’s briefly go through the whole methodology, discussing the goals, actions and appropriate tools at every stage.

Define

If you want to improve something, you better be able to pinpoint what it is exactly you want to be done. This stage of the process seeks clarification on questions like:

  • What is the problem?
  • How often does it happen?
  • What are its effects on the business?
  • What is the goal of the project? (Specify a target.)

You can define the problem as broadly or as minutely as you can. (Part of the team’s mission is to determine which level of analysis is feasible and will have the most impact on the company.)

To lessen surprises, friction and misunderstandings down the road, this stage is also used as a “housekeeping” opportunity where the team meets and discusses project management issues like:

  • Who are the members of the team and what are their specific tasks?
  • When is the deadline for the project?
  • What are the deliverables that are expected?
  • How will the whole project be run?
  • What are the tools and techniques that are going to be employed?

At the end of this phase, the team would have come up with a document, a charter that will serve as its marching orders. This will help the team to be on the same page.

Measure

Say the problem you wanted to look into is increasing the number of widgets produced monthly by the company. This next part starts the ball rolling by placing a magnifying glass on business operations.

Six Sigma is a data-driven approach to problem-solving. This means collecting data, that is, looking into the different business activities and putting numbers on them. For example:

  • How long does it take to produce one widget?
  • How many widgets are produced per hour?
  • How many machines are working at any given time?
  • How long do these machines work before they needed to be turned off?

A baseline is taken for the business. This will serve as a yardstick and will come in handy later when the team wanted to know whether or not the problem has been addressed or improvements have been attained.

Six Sigma has a whole suite of tools that helps businesses measure just how efficient their businesses are. This includes Pareto Charts, Process Mapping, and Capability Analysis. Tools like these give you insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the enterprise, helping point out growth opportunities.

Analyze

Now that the team has the numbers, they can now trace those back to their root causes. For the goal of producing more widgets, you now begin to ask, “Why are we only producing this number of widgets per month?”

Six Sigma has a full suite of tools to help you analyze and make sense of the figures. For example, you can inquire if the process is efficient and effective or if it’s creating too many defective products that needed be redone, or worse, discarded.

Tools like Root Cause Analysis (RCA) are typically used at this stage. Multi-vari Charts and Failure Mode and Effects Analysis can also be useful.

At this stage, you begin to uncover the reasons why the company produces a low number of widgets. And one by one, you address these issues.

Many consider this to be the most important phase of DMAIC. The team needs to be able to determine what ails the enterprise and not jump to conclusions and immediately move to recommendations. If the team gets the wrong diagnosis, they will never be able to propose the right solutions to the problem at hand.

Improve

This is where the team, as process doctors, give medicine to the patient. Knowing what you know now, how would you go about solving this problem?

For this example, you might institute changes like these to increase production:

  • Investing in more machines.
  • Letting machines work for longer hours.
  • Shortening production time by changing how it’s made.
  • Recalibrating equipment.
  • Investing in new, top-of-the-line equipment.

This part of DMAIC is highly iterative. The team needs to ensure that the proposed solutions are working. First, you need to ensure that the treatment plan is properly implemented. Then you need to be watching the numbers again and see if it has met expectations and indeed raised production numbers.

Tools like Design of Experiments (DOE) are ideal at this stage of the project.

Control

When the team has determined that the proposed solutions are bearing fruit and have hit the targets, the next thing to do is to cement these gains.

It’s important to ensure that daily operations remain faithful to the new processes and standards set by the team. They should implement safeguards that prevent things from drifting back to the old way of doing things.

Tools like Mistake Proofing, Statistical Process Controls, and 5S are very useful at this stage. They help ensure that the company will continue to operate at the determined standard.

This is how multinational companies do their problem-solving. They let a team run the DMAIC process—kind of like the Scientific Method, but in the context of business.

It’s not just big companies that can benefit from Six Sigma. Businesses of all sizes, as long as they have a good team in place, can execute DMAIC.

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