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Continuous Improvement

Why should you be worried about Project selection in any Continuous Improvement (CI) Program?

While leaders strive to build a culture of continuous improvement (CI) in their organizations, it is equally important to understand that business-as-usual activities take precedence over improvement activities. CI programs commence with a big bang and a lot of enthusiasm, but time wears out even the strongest and what it leaves behind is mere CI hubbub. This is not a simple problem to solve. If you have been part of any enterprise-wide CI deployment, you will have no difficulty relating to this. This problem is complex and has several failure modes.

In this article, I’ll like to highlight a common but significant failure mode – Selection of projects. It’s needless to emphasize that projects play a big role in any CI journey, but to its disgrace, projects are also a significant contributor to the downfall of CI program.

Going overboard and having too many concurrent projects is one way to fail. Not selecting the right projects to pursue is another. Here are few compelling reasons to consider project selection as an important activity rather than opening the floodgates of projects:

Business Priority: Every business has its own priorities and so it’s important to select the right projects that are aligned with your priorities. Having many dispersed projects will blemish, if not nullify the impact of projects. Alignment between leader’s priority & CI program can be easily accomplished if you select projects right at the beginning.

Change due to competition: If your competition is disrupting the industry, well you better select where you need to improve. External environment often forces organizations ruthlessly reform their way of thinking and working. And today, we all live in a world that is fast changing. So unless your right projects are selected and pursued, your CI program will become redundant soon.

High Customer Expectations: Everyone I talk to says, customers are demanding more than ever before. Understanding the changing their needs and aligning the CI program to customers is vital to the success of any organization’s CI program. Organizations sometimes pursue trivial opportunities such as cost saves but miss on acting on big ticket customer facing projects or customer pain points. Of course, while dealing with customers, things are going to be volatile, but that’s not a reason to avoid them. The good project selection process should filter such project opportunities.

Limited Budgets: All organizations must work within the framework of budgets. Improvements need monetary resources to support the change. Sometimes they are direct and hence easily associated to direct cost centers. But projects with intangible benefits or the ones incurring indirect costs usually end up as scapegoats. If an organization commits to project selection, many such failures can be prevented.

Availability of Resources: Human capital is scarce. CI projects need quality time and mindshare from people of importance in the organization. Quite often resource requirements are never considered during the commencement of projects. Even if considered, it’s only the project leader’s time. As CI projects are a cross-functional effort, active participation of experts from all involved functions defines the success of the project. In order to ensure we get the best out of our teams, we need to time our success. Thus project selection is a time sensitive activity.

Optimizing Number of Projects: Not all the areas of your organization need improvement at the same time, And improvement culture building is a slow and steady process which can never be implemented overnight, nor will the results reap overnight. So getting to rush out the organizational adrenaline may not be a success recipe for good CI program. Selection of projects will ensure that you sustain optimum enthusiasm in the system for CI.
So it is very evident that selection of projects impacts the CI culture, employee satisfaction, alignment to customers and ROI to business for the investments it makes in CI in a positive way. In the future articles, we’ll take this one step further and talk about the criteria used for selecting projects.

Are Design Thinking and Six Sigma mutually exclusive?

Read Nilakanta Srinivasan's answer to Are Design Thinking and Six Sigma mutually exclusive? on Quora

Significance of Y=f(X) in Lean Six Sigma

If you are new to Lean Six Sigma then Y=f(X) is one amongst many jargons that you will have to familiarize yourself.

The objective of Lean Six Sigma philosophy and DMAIC improvement methodology is to identify the root causes to any problem and control/manage them so that the problem can be alleviated.

Six Sigma is process oriented approach which considers every task as a process. Even the simplest of the tasks, such as performing your morning workout or getting ready to office is considered as a process. The implication of such a view point is to identify what is the output of that process, its desired level of performance and what inputs are needed to produce the desired results.

Y is usually used to denote the Output and X for the inputs.

Y is also known as dependent variable as it is dependent on the Xs. Usually Y represents the symptoms or the effect of any problem.

On the other hand, X is known as independent variable as it is not dependent on Y or any other X. Usually Xs represents the problem itself or the cause.

As you will agree that any process will have at least one output but most likely to have several inputs. As managers, we all are expected to deliver results and achieve a new level of performance of the process such as Service Levels, Production Levels, Quality Levels, etc., or sustain the current level of performance.

In order to achieve this objective, we focus our efforts on the output performance measure.  However a smart process manager will focus on identifying Xs that impact the output performance measure in order to achieve the desired level of performance.

How does one identify the input performance measures or Xs?

Six Sigma DMAIC methodology aims to identify the inputs(Xs) that have significant impact on output (Y). After that the strength and nature of the relationship between Y and Xs are also established.

Six Sigma uses a variety of qualitative and quantitative tools & techniques listed below to identify the statistical validation of the inputs (or root causes), their strength and nature of relationship with Y:

  • Cause and Effect Diagram/Fish Bone diagram
  • 5 Why Analysis
  • Process Maps
  • Histogram
  • Descriptive Statistics
  • Run Charts
  • Normal Distribution Plots
  • Box plots
  • Stem and Leaf Plots
  • Hypothesis Testing
  • ANOVA (Analysis of Variance)
  • Chi-Square Test
  • 1-t Test
  • 2-t Test
  • Paired t Test
  • Correlation
  • Regression
  • Scatter Plots
  • Statistical Process Control (SPC)/Control Charts

What does f in Y= f(X) mean?

‘f’ represents the nature and strength of the relationship that exists between Y and X. On one hand, this equation can be used for a generic interpretation that symbolizes the fact that Y is impacted by X and nature of relationship can be quantified. On the other hand, such a mathematical expression can be created provided we have sufficient data using the above mentioned analytical tools such as regression and other hypothesis tests.

The mathematical expression that we obtain is nothing but an equation such as:

TAT = 13.3 – 7.4*Waiting Time + 1.8*No. of Counters – 24*Time to Approve

Once such an equation is established, it can be easily used to proactively identify the Y for various values of X. Thus Y= f(X) is the basis for predictive modeling. All the newer analytical concepts such as Big Data, etc are based on this foundation principles.

Webinar : Applications of Statistical Process Control(SPC) in Six Sigma Projects

This complimentary webinar organized by is aimed at providing a better understanding the Applications of Statistical Process Control(SPC) in Six Sigma Projects.

As this is a virtual event event you can attend from anywhere, all you need is a good internet connection and computer.


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  • Statistical Process Control in Six Sigma Projects
  • How to construct & interpret a control chart
  • Types of Control Charts
  • Statistical Process Control Application

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Lean Six Sigma Project – A Beginner’s Guide

Lean Six Sigma Project – A beginner’s guide is a series that explains how to run Lean Six Sigma projects in detail. The biggest benefit of combining Lean and Six Sigma is to deliver more value to customers and business. In order for a Six Sigma Green Belt to be successful with a project, they must know what’s to be done, and how to accomplish them! This guide is a step-by-step procedure to execute the 5 phases of a Lean Six Sigma project.

Lean Six Sigma improvement projects follow 5 phase DMAIC approach. A six sigma project is not an academic exercise, but its primary objective is to impact customers, business, and employees positively. Thus stakeholder buy-in and sponsorship are very important factors for its success. Every project should have at least one project sponsor (One sponsor is just fine, two is OK, but greater than that is undesirable). The project sponsor is usually the process owner or a senior management executive who is accountable for the overall project and its success. They take the lead in identifying the project & its objectives, and in team formation.

The team composition should be cross-functional. The sponsor also has to decide whether this Six Sigma project should be led by a Black Belt or Green Belt. Once identified, the respective Six Sigma Belt plays the lead role in the project. It is their responsibility to complete the project on time, and deliver desired results. Now, for the remaining part of this beginner’s guide, let’s assume that it is a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Project.
The duration of a typical project should be between 3 to 4 months. The overall project plan for all Six Sigma improvement projects are mapped to Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. There are defined deliverables for each of these phases which have to be accomplished before progressing further. At the end of each phase, a formal tollgate is used to stage a gate review by the sponsors. Various Six Sigma concepts and tools can be applied to progress and accomplish desired phase-wise outcomes.

In order to make sure the project meets the timeline, and set-out objectives; the Green belt and team members are to meet regularly. In addition to this, Six Sigma Green Belts are mentored by Black Belts or Master Black Belts.

In a nutshell, following are the broad outlines for each of the DMAIC phases of Lean Six Sigma Project:

  • Define – Identify the project objective and define the problem to be solved
  • Measure – Collect necessary data regarding the problem and establish current performance
  • Analyze – Use the data collected to analyze and screen factors which are the root causes for a problem
  • Improve – Identify suitable solutions to overcome the root causes
  • Control – Implement the solutions and monitor its results

Next, as a part of this beginner’s guide, let’s understand how to accomplish the deliverable of the Define phase here. Next >>>

What is Design for Six Sigma (DFSS)

Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) is an approach that is part of the Six Sigma methodology, and it aims to develop products and services which operate at Six Sigma or above. What does this mean; and how is this approach different from implementing six sigma in existing products, services & processes? If you have read our articles What is Six in Six Sigma, and What is Sigma in Six Sigma; you will understand how Six Sigma is measured.
Every process performs at its designed and operating capability. For instance, consider the Indian traffic and transportation management system. A good measure of its performance is the number of deaths due to road accidents. There are several other measures, but for simplicity let’s just consider this one. This performance measure is called CTQ (Critical To Quality).
India has the largest number of deaths per year due to road accidents (Approximately 130,000 deaths per annum). If we were to commence a Six Sigma project to reduce the number of deaths, we would use DMAIC approach. We will identify root causes for this problem, and try to eliminate them with good and sustainable solutions. For instance, helmets and seat belts mandatory, enforcement of speed limits & drunken driving laws, additional traffic patrols, etc., may be few solutions we will implement.

By doing so, lets hypothetically assume that we have been able to reduce the number of deaths to 30,000 per annum, in 3 years’ time. However, we aren’t able to reduce it any further. This stage; when any process or system is delivering its best performance, is referred to as Process Entitlement.
However, 30,000 is still a high number and we want to bring it down to manageable double digits. So we have to discard our existing traffic & transport management system; and design a completely new system, from scratch, that will help us reach our target. Double digit fatality means we will operate well within Six Sigma level, considering our 1.2 billion population as a base.
Such a process of re-designing or newly designing any product, service or products is referred to as DFSS. Design for Six Sigma is defined as a Customer focused design approach used for creating products, services, and processes which will deliver Six Sigma Performance. Samsung products are a very good example of Design for Six Sigma.
In many fields like airline, surgery, automobile braking, etc., require processes to deliver Six Sigma at all times. For such systems, design for six sigma concept comes handy. The very first time products and processes are developed, they are designed to deliver Six Sigma performance.
Following are the key differentiators for DFSS:

  • Understand customer requirements, and translate them to product performance measures.
  • Design products, sub-systems, and processes to deliver Six Sigma performance.
  • Design ‘first time right’ products and services.
  • Innovative designs deliver Six Sigma performance, rather than existing designs.
  • Optimize the design for usability, manufacturability, or serviceability.

While DFSS is a principle, there are different ways in which it can be put to use. IDOV and DMADV are popular approaches.

IDOV is a 4 step approach representing Identify, Design, Optimize & Verify.  And DMADV is a 5 step approach representing Define, Measure, Analyze, Design & Verify.

Six Sigma Process

Six Sigma has been a successful management approach, and a philosophy for many leading global enterprises. Let’s understand Six Sigma Process – in other words – Six Sigma Deployment Approach.

While the deployment of Six Sigma depends on several factors; the following approach explains Six Sigma process in its simplest form.

Six Sigma as a management discipline puts customer’s interest ahead of others. The process of gathering customer requirements is called as Voice of Customer (VOC). A good deployment program starts with VOC. Customer requirements directly translate into business performance standards. In Six Sigma and many quality management approaches, these performance standards are called as Customer Specification Limits.

Operational metrics and performance measures like KPIs are created based on customer requirements. Such operational measures or KPIs are called as Critical To Quality (CTQ) metrics in Six Sigma.

Output of existing processes is measured against customer requirements. This becomes a benchmark of performance. In Six Sigma, this step is called as Assessment of Current Process Capability.

In case an end-to-end process is not capable of consistently meeting customer requirements, and produces high volume of defects; it is taken up for improvement.

Process improvement approach used in Six Sigma is called as DMAIC. It is the acronym of Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control: a 5 step improvement approach.

In this manner, Six Sigma aims to link Customers, Business Processes, CTQs and process improvement all together.

The real power of a Six Sigma Process is in consistently and iteratively following the above activities.

Thus, an organization following a Six Sigma Process:

  1. Systematically and regularly gathers VOC
  2. Measures its process capability
  3. Identifies improvement opportunities
  4. Uses DMAIC to improve its processes

Six Sigma & Project Management

Six Sigma & Project Management are two high trending topics of interest among professionals and organizations today. While Six Sigma is a management approach, project management principles instill the rigor of execution.

Whatever is the nature of your business, innovation is critical today. In order to survive competition and be the customers’ choice, you need to come up with really new products and services.

All it means is that your change management ability is a direct measure of your success. In other words, timely launch of new products/services in desired quality and price are going to determine your success; apart from the cultural change aspect. So whether you want it or not, good project management skills are essential in today’s business to survive and win. Without digressing on other pre-requisites of good project management, let’s focus on one of most important but rarely focused area.

There are several project management techniques and tools available, such as: CPM, PERT, and Critical Chain. Immaterial of the base on which these models are structured, out of my experience, everything finally boils down to predicting the time duration for a task and delivery as predicted.

In small organizations (less than 10 employees), it is more of coordination, multi-tasking, and communication that will determine if a task can be completed as predicted. But with organizations involving a few hundreds of employees, it is all about how resources and efforts are synchronized. There may be lack of knowledge of what is to be done next, on who owns which piece, how & when to escalate, and lack of clarity on authority & decision making. Additionally, unlike big organizations, smaller companies will have to manage with inexperienced and understaffed scenarios.

So to make life easy for everyone; if processes associated with project management such as supply chain management processes, finance processes, clearly defined inter-department service levels and authorities, etc., are established well; it will help the organization deliver projects in time. Isn’t this what ‘Process Orientation’ is all about!

Strong Process Orientation: one of the key foundations of Six Sigma is responsible for success in most project based industries. Mathematically also it makes sense to focus on process orientation. For instance, consider the PERT model in which the PERT Time (Task duration) is a function of Optimistic Time (OT), Most Likely Time (MLT), and Pessimistic Time (PT). When OT and PT are wide apart, it means that it is not possible to predict the task duration accurately. In other words, the process on which the task is dependent has high variation. Such a process leads to higher PERT Time. When all the tasks of a project have widely spread OTs and PTs, the overall project duration itself will be high and unpredictable.

Will Six Sigma help me become a better leader?

Have you ever thought about this before – Will Six Sigma help me become a better leader? Isn’t leadership a soft skill unlike Six Sigma? Six Sigma is more about playing with numbers, statistics, Minitab!!!

Ask leaders of organizations that follow Six Sigma as a management philosophy, and they will disagree.

A true practitioner of Six Sigma is a great leader. All basic principles of Six Sigma help to be a better leader:

  • Customer Centricity
  • Data or Fact Based Decision Making
  • Strong Process Orientation
  • Structured way to improve, design and sustain processes

Let’s consider 4 important dimensions of leadership that most world class organizations strive to instil in their associates.

  • Ability to grow the business
  • Capability to lead the team to deliver
  • Drive culture of execution
  • Conviction to sustain the momentum & optimism

Let us consider one at a time, and understand how Six Sigma can help focus on these 4 aspects.

Ability to grow the business

  • Deep and broad business perspective is the first and foremost pre-requisite for any leader to growth their business.  They have the ability to fragment or aggregate processes/tasks, and develop a meaningful understanding. Good leaders are quick to break complex processes into simple & small units, and manage them effectively. We call this ability as Strong Process Orientation in Six Sigma.
  • Good leaders challenge the status quo, and thereby reinvent the business. Availability of information & factual data empowers a leader to take bold decisions.
  • Businesses that are customer centric grow faster . Moreover customer requirements constantly change. Ability to choose the right method to reach out to customer, ask the right questions and present the data appropriately is the key. In other words, good leaders take additional care to establish and manage Voice of Customer programs.
  • Customer retention and repeat business is all about instilling higher internal standards and practices to make processes error-free or defect-free.

 Capability to lead the team to deliver

  • In order to retain great talent, a leader should be able to align functional goals to individual’s KPI’s. They should use data to differentiate high and poor performers rather than intuition and gut feeling.
  • A good leader’s ability to communicate crisply and candidly is only possible when they are data centric.

 Drive Culture of Execution

  • Results need to consistent. Great leaders manage variation along with averages. One of the primary goals of Six Sigma is to reduce Variation.
  • Data or fact based decisions result in high probability of success. This means more confidence about the team and better alignment.

 Conviction to sustain the momentum & optimism

  • Constantly raising the bar is possible when one understands the CTQs, key drivers of the business, and process capability very well.
  • Displaying personal courage cannot come without confidence. And confidence comes only with data.

So a good leader will not miss a single opportunity to apply the above principles of Six Sigma in their business to deliver results consistently.

That is why at many world class organizations, Six Sigma is in the fabric of who they are. So, beyond doubt, Six Sigma help me become a better leader!

Why Six Sigma?

Six Sigma has evolved as a management discipline for improving processes, and providing customer delight. Some organizations like GE had adopted Six Sigma as their management philosophy.

So, Why Six Sigma? Why not follow other approaches like TQM, SCM, COPC, ISO, etc.

Let’s understand why many organizations choose Six Sigma over other approaches; and how they benefited.

There are 3 key salient features of Six Sigma that are noteworthy:

  • Customer Centricity
  • Process Orientation
  • Fact Based Decision Making

Customer Centricity

While the emphasis on building business processes to meet customer requirements was first proposed by Joseph Juran & Edward Deming (fathers of modern Quality movement);  it was taken seriously only with the advent of Six Sigma. Gathering the Voice of Customer and translating these requirements into product features, aka Quality Function Deployment (QFD), were loosely used in TQM. Whereas, in Six Sigma Voice of Customers (VOC) is the starting point.

Operational measures and performance measures (KPIs) are built based on VOC. These measures are called as CTQ (Critical To Quality). Customers’ needs constantly change. Such changing needs mean that processes also need to adapt and evolve. Six Sigma enables achieving this adaptation. While creating a new product or service line; the entire system is built to meet customer requirements. Such an approach is called as Design for Six Sigma (DFSS).

Process Orientation

Six Sigma builds strong process orientation within the organization. In Six Sigma, virtually every department, activity, or task is perceived as a process in itself or process step. What does that mean? It means a lot!

Every process produces few outputs, and in turn; requires few inputs. Outputs are consumed by Customers (internal or external); and inputs are provided by Suppliers. Such visualization is called as SIPOC in Six Sigma. This helps organizations to move away from the mind-set of fixing people when things don’t work; to fixing processes. In order to improve the outputs of any process or department, its process steps and inputs needs to be improved, and sometimes suppliers need to be educated. People are never penalized in Six Sigma!

Traditionally many industries & functions are regarded as ‘people’ driven. For instance, industries such as Hospitality, Entertainment & most service lines and functions such as HR, Marketing, Sales, Admin. Six Sigma organizations treat these as just another process. As a result, the dependency on individuals is also reduced. Organizational silos are challenged and processes are simplified.

Driving strong process orientation across the organization has resulted in unbelievable tangible and intangible benefits to customers and organizations. GE is a pioneer in driving process orientation in its Financial Service businesses.

Fact Based Decision Making

Once organizations establish process orientation; access to data and factual information will increase. This presents the next big opportunity for organizations. Across levels, organizations are dependent on their managers to take right decisions. Most often, these decisions are punctuated by decision maker’s bias and personal intuition. Wrong decisions are costly and usually borne by the organization.

Six Sigma’s bouquet of tools enables data or fact based decision making. This means the overall management is much more efficient and accurate. DMAIC, an acronym for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control, is a method used for solving problems. There are over 50 qualitative and quantitative tools which are part of DMAIC. These tools can be applied in several stand-alone situations too. These tools enable data or fact based decision making.

At a personal level, an individual practicing Six Sigma over a period time is more efficient and effective than her peers. This has direct impact on career and growth prospects.

Thus Six Sigma is a powerful approach which is not only beneficial to organizations; but also to individuals.

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What is Six in Six Sigma?

This is the second article in the series that will help understand What is Six in Six Sigma? If you haven’t already read our article ‘What is Sigma in Six Sigma‘, we would like to recommend that you first do so.

For now, let’s look into what is Six in Six Sigma.

Let’s get started by understanding Customer Requirement and Actual Performance.

We are going to use the example of newspaper delivery everyday to your house. As a customer, you want newspapers to be delivered between 7:00 and 7:30 am (say within a half hour window). However, in reality, the paper gets delivered only between 6:00 to 9:00 am (a 3 hour window). So, in this case, the customer requirement or allowable variation is ’30 mins’ while the Actual Performance or Actual Variation is 3 hours.

On the contrary, your friend isn’t so particular about his newspaper delivery. He is in fact fine if they are delivered between 6:00 to 9:00 am (a 3 hour window). But in reality, his papers get delivered between 7:00 to 7:30 am (a half hour window).

How would you characterize these two situations?

  • In your case, actual variation is much higher than allowable customer requirement. In otWhat is Six in Six Sigmaher words, Standard Deviation or Sigma is high.
  • In your friend’s case, actual variation is much lower than allowable customer requirement (and so, Standard Deviation or Sigma is low)

Now, let’s answer the question ‘What is Six in Six Sigma?’

Six refers to the Sigma Capability of any process. In this case, the newspaper delivery process. When it’s Six, it means that the Standard Deviation or Sigma is so small that 6 Standard Deviations or 6 Sigmas can be fitted on either side of the bell-shaped curve. Based on the principle of bell-shaped curve (normal curve), 6 Sigma equals only 3.4 defects per million opportunities. For the newspaper example, it means that if there are 1 million days of newspaper delivery, only on 3.4 days (i.e. 3 or 4 days) of the delivery will be beyond your requirement. So, it is very obvious that your newspaper delivery isn’t at the Six Sigma level, but your friend’s delivery could be. It depends on the value of Standard Deviation. We covered the computation of standard deviation in ‘What is Sigma in Six Sigma’.

Let’s say for your friend’s process, only 5 standard deviations or sigmas can be fitted on either side of the bell-shaped curve, then, his sigma capability is at 5 or his newspaper delivery process is at 5 Sigma.

To sum up, if you want a particular process to be at Six Sigma, then you will have to manage the following:
Understand what the customer requirement is? If there is a window within which the customer wants her delivery or quality, then that becomes your customer requirement.

  • Use the data of process performance to compute the standard deviation.
  • Assess if the Standard Deviation or Sigma of the process is small enough, that 6 Sigmas can be fitted on either side of the customer requirement window.
  • Let’s say your process isn’t at Six Sigma then to find out the sigma value you can either use Sigma Capability Table, Normal Distribution Table or Sigma Calculator. Details of how to compute Sigma for any process is covered in detail in our Six Sigma Green Belt Course.