Using Lean Six Sigma Concepts for Problem Solving
By Anne Foley, MBB, CSSBB, PMP
Director of Lean Six Sigma, IIL
A high school teacher recently asked his class what a good leader does first when a problem is identified. Several hands went up and he called on one of the boys. The student confidently replied, “Find out who is to blame for the problem.” At first, the instructor thought the student was joking, but quickly realized by the nodding of heads in the room, that he was not. Pointing fingers at someone else has been modeled over and over in our society by both political and business leaders and this story makes me wonder if the kids today understand that it is not the right way to solve a problem.
For close to twenty years, I have been successfully solving problems with a process improvement structure known as Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (aka: DMAIC). The structure was first created at Motorola to help the company win the Malcom Baldrige National Quality Award in 1988. Eventually, other companies like Allied Signal and General Electric adopted the evolved version of DMAIC and taught tens of thousands of employees (including yours truly) how to solve problems by improving the processes that were causing the problems. Today, DMAIC frequently sits under an umbrella known as Lean Six Sigma, which hundreds of companies are now using to ensure they meet the quality expectations of customers effectively and efficiently. In my opinion, it’s the best way to solve a problem.
The Define phase of the DMAIC structure starts with problem definition. A problem is defined as a question or situation that calls for a solution. The first step is to clearly define the problem by quantifying the frequency of occurrence and the impact when it occurs. This is harder than it sounds. Most people want to solve it before the problem is even defined. Some even frame the solution in the problem definition. For example, I once had a colleague tell me that because our website lacked a well written FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page, our tech support department received more calls than they could handle. He assumed that the solution to the problem (high volume of calls) was a better FAQ page and he stated so in defining the problem. This is not uncommon. We all have our theories of what the solution is, but I have learned that it is best to approach a problem with as little bias as possible and let the DMAIC structure lead you to the best solution.
The Measure and Analyze phases of the DMAIC structure involve baselining a key performance metric of the problem so there is something to measure the improvement against. In the previous example the key metric might be the number of technical support calls not resolved in 2-4 hours or whatever the customer requires. The goal will be to reduce or eliminate the calls that are not meeting those expectations. Additionally, this is the phase where the focus shifts from the effects of the problem to the possible causes. These are called factors and the best way to find the most likely factors is to facilitate root cause analysis. It is so much easier to fix a problem when you truly know the root cause(s). So many leaders still opt for the trial and error method of problem solving which often results in fixing a symptom? I once had a leader tell a conference room full of managers that “done is better than right.” He truly believed that we needed to prioritize speed over accuracy and circle back to fix whatever was broken. This only works if you have lots of time and money to waste.
When you reach the Improve phase of DMAIC, you are ready to generate solutions to the problem. Albert Einstein once said “the significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” This is where critical thinking techniques come in. We need to shift our thinking with variations of brainstorming such as Random Word, Morphological Box or Reverse Thinking. These are all techniques designed to see a problem through a fresh perspective. One of my favorites is Reverse Thinking. This is where a team of individuals spend a set amount of time (usually 10-15 minutes) discussing how the problem could get worse, before allowing their minds to identify solutions. This technique creates a shift in thinking away from those top of mind solutions that Einstein speaks about. It never ceases to amaze me how well this works.
The last phase of DMAIC is the Control phase and it primarily deals with change management. As it turns out, we humans aren’t too good with change. We might want it in theory, but our habits get in the way. This phase deals with some necessary steps to sustain the gains made with solving a problem. Without this phase, many of the problems return, thanks to the tendency of those who need to sustain the solution, returning to what they have done before.
A wise man named Theodore Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” The DMAIC structure in Lean Six Sigma has taught me how to determine the right thing, without ever pointing a finger at anyone.
Anne F. Foley, PMP, MBB, CSSBB has been teaching Lean Six Sigma (DMAIC) and Project Management for eighteen years. Anne has served as the Director of Lean Six Sigma at IIL for the past thirteen years. She is also the author of The Passages to Peace (a novel) and a frequent contributor to Project Management, Lean Six Sigma and other various publications. Anne has a Bachelors of Science degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Kansas State University.