One of the necessary things that every business or organization should focus on is improving its processes. However, there is often a need to measure several things and a myriad of variables to be considered, making this an uphill task if the right approaches are not taken.
Therefore, the main questions that one should answer before initiating change in business processes are: What is the starting point? How does the business determine what’s good? Who should be responsible for the improvement?
To save you from all these intricacies, there are certain tested and proven approaches that the business can tap into. Some of the biggest companies in the world use Six Sigma, which has key techniques for process improvement and management.
What then is Six Sigma? Six Sigma combines techniques that focus on finding the right focus and improving processes around the business goals. These techniques aim to reduce defects from a given process, saving the business time, effort and money.
This article looks at the core sigma principles that can help your business shape and direct its process improvement. However, note that the schools of business process improvement are constantly evolving, and therefore, people have reservations regarding what constitutes these principles.
Before we look at the core sigma principles, let us look at some of the uses of Sigma.
Uses of Six Sigma
1. Revealing Defects
A sigma informs the company how many defects they have to deal with. Since these techniques aim to improve given business processes or company processes, the resultant effect should be a reduced number of defects per million.
To understand this, we need to explore the origin of the idea of sigmas. It comes from standard deviation, aiming to reduce deviations to the highest possible number. Sigma number 1 means that most products are defective, which puts the business in a bad position.
Most companies operate at a sigma of 3 or 4, where a sigma of 3 means that a large percentage (93.32%) of their products are non-defective, and a sigma of 4 means 99.38% the products do not have defects. Even though these two values may look good on paper, the six percent difference has a large impact.
The goal, therefore, is to reach the Six Sigma category, where a company only experiences 3.4 defects per million units.
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2. Managing defects
Managers use Six Sigma to reduce defects. These are common in any large assembly line process where a percentage of products may come out slightly or completely wrong. Since production is normally aimed at making the end-users, the customers, happy, they may be dissatisfied with some of these goods.
Most companies have a quality assurance team or process stage to identify defects and prevent them from reaching the end-user. These normally present themselves in the form of industrial waste and, if left unchecked, lead to a waste of time, money, and resources that an organization could have channeled towards producing a functioning product.
However, even with these mechanisms in place, not every defective product will be detected, and some may reach the end-user. There is a possibility that the quality assurance team may not be as effective as you thought, or the defect may be really small, internal, or appear after a short usage time.
Six Sigma techniques, therefore, understand that these defects are the fault of the process. Here, the defects produced per given unit are calculated to give an objective measure that will help judge the process improvement efforts.
Defects have their fair share of disadvantages, not only to the product but also to the entire business. The business will waste time, money, and resources, and the customer will be dissatisfied with the end product. This means that you will lose potential customers if your product greatly relies on customer loyalty, thus rendering all your efforts useless.
Now that you understand the uses of six Sigma, we need to delve deeper into the principles that will help us achieve these results and how they work. We will cover each of them one by one and look at how they can be implemented.
Six Sigma Principles
1. Always Focus on The Customer
You need to take some time and think about what you are doing and some of the reasons why when it comes to Six Sigma. Whereas it is easy to initiate process improvement for a single process, it presents a limited scope with limited considerations.
Six Sigma should be used in a holistic way to better the entire organization and not just a faction of it. Therefore, the first principle of Six Sigma that businesses should focus on is creating and delivering value for their customers.
The production process should be optimized to come up with a product that everyone wants to buy. Businesses should therefore have their definition of quality, which dictates how they improve their products and processes.
Focusing on offering value to the customer help shape business activities. A good example when it comes to this is in assessing waste in the production process, where businesses can cut out activities that do not constitute value. This helps understand what is wasteful and what is not.
No business can determine what is wasteful if it has not assessed what value truly means. This hinders improvement, meaning that the end product will most probably disappoint the customer. Therefore, make sure that the process improvement is meant to create and deliver value to customers.
2. Ensure That Your Processes Flow Smoothly
A core component of Six Sigma that not many people pay attention to is that everything is process-driven, leaving no room for chance or ability. Therefore, every business that uses Six Sigma must ensure that the process is smooth and practical.
However, an organization cannot achieve this overnight. The business must first identify and understand the associated problems. One of these is the bottlenecks, where a given area in the process does not perform to the required standards, bringing down all the other areas to its level.
Bottlenecks are usually the biggest impediment to achieving a smooth process flow. An example of how you can deal with these is to have software that points out most of these bottlenecks, especially if you have employed techniques like process mining.
However, for smaller operations, we advise that you use a simple technique like the 5 Whys. Basically, you will be asking ‘why’ five times to understand the root cause of the problem at hand, which can either be a process malfunction or lack of it in total.
Here is an example. Suppose that your computer is not working, these are the questions that you should ask:
- Why? The drivers are dead.
- Why? The motherboard is not functioning.
- Why? Its components are broken.
- Why? Some of the components were beyond their service life, and nothing had been done.
- Why? The computer was not well maintained.
The fifth why should give you the root cause of the problem at hand.
3. Have an understanding of How Things Work
You cannot use Six Sigma to improve business processes if you do not have the perfect understanding of how these processes occur. You should know what the current process is if you intend to make improvements.
We advise you to have documented workflows and processes as well as utilized the ethos of business process management by now. However, you can use process mining if you haven’t. This is where one utilizes a software to analyze the work being done in liaison with the team to discover the order tasks.
Once the process is documented, you can use process analysis tools to assess what work is being done and how it should be done, normally known as conformance checking. This will help you understand your processes.
For example, before initiating change in a production process, you need to understand the entire process, what happens, and some areas that affect normal production.
Reduce Waste While Concentrating on Value
As we discussed in our first point, prioritizing on value means doing away with anything that does not contribute to it. Therefore, one must do away with everything that is considered waste or wasteful.
The main question that comes up, however, is what is waste and what constitutes it? There are seven types of waste encountered in production: waste of overproduction, waste of transportation, waste of processing, waste of movement, waste of stock at hand, waste of making defective products, and waste of time on hand.
After knowing what waste is, we need to look into how we can counter them. To eliminate wastes, we recommend that you make them visible, be accountable and conscious of them, measure them and finally eliminate or reduce them.
However, to measure waste as directed by Six Sigma, you need to create a culture of fighting against them. You can implement systems to tackle a given category of wastes once it has been identified.
4. Counter Defects by Removing Variation
This is normally considered the core of Six Sigma. The best way of reducing defects in a given process is by optimizing it and ensuring that it runs well every time. This brings us to the standardization of processes. Your chances of cutting out defective output are heightened by how much you can remove variation and ensure that the process is running optimally all through.
When depending on Six Sigma for manufacturing products and dealing with mechanical and industrial-style production systems, we advise that you aim for standardization. It also comes in handy when working with lean Six Sigma.
However, how do you achieve this? You can use process sheets and checklists to standardize an approach and delve into the intricacies of standardization. A checklist will help you remove variance, thus bringing you closer to your final goal.
We also advise that you standardize processes that have a standard repetition. For example, when aiming at finding processes, you should not only look for a process that will be fast but also that which can be consistently fast and easy to standardize.
5. Get Buy-Ins from The Team
There is power in collaboration. Even though managers and analysts are in a better position to make excellent decisions regarding a process, the employees involved in the daily operation of the process also deserve a voice, and they can offer useful insights that would have otherwise escaped the top management.
We advise, therefore, that managers and people responsible for process management should strive to have a one-on-one interaction with the places that need improvement. In Six Sigma, team members responsible for process improvement are normally grouped into process owner, process champion, black belts, and green belts. They normally have different responsibilities, including being in liaison with other staff or employees.
The Six Sigma team should get other teams to recognize the issues at hand and buy into the solutions. A good example of achieving buy-in is by making the staff involved in the improvement process through consultation.
Therefore, while pursuing Six Sigma, every organization should know that people are involved in the running of the organization, and their input should therefore be considered.
6. Ensure That Your Efforts Are Both Systematic and Scientific
Six Sigma helps you come up with a system that allows you to improve your processes. It has a scientific quality given that it taps into our data-driven world. You should therefore find ways of how to use this data to help create and maintain improvements.
Therefore, while using Six Sigma, you should aim at achieving a scientific approach to your business operations. The DMAIC process in Six Sigma will help you come up with a useful definition of a problem, calculate its possible successes and measure any attempt that will help you arrive at it.
A good example of achieving this is looking for scientific solutions for your problems based on the data collected and recording your efforts systematically.
These seven principles should help you achieve adequate process management through Six Sigma. However, you should also take your time and learn more about Six Sigma before any attempt to use it in your business for process management.