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The DMAIC project methodology has five phases:


  • Define the problem, the voice of the customer, and the project goals, specifically.


  • Measure key aspects of the current process and collect relevant data.


  • Analyze the data to investigate and verify cause-and-effect relationships. Determine what the relationships are, and attempt to ensure that all factors have been considered. Seek out of the defect under investigation.


  • Improve or optimize the current process based upon data analysis using techniques such as of experiments or mistake proofing, and standard work to create a new, future state process. Set up pilot runs to establish process capability.


  • Control the future state process to ensure that any deviations from target are corrected before they result in defects. Implement control systems such as statistical process control production boards, visual workplaces, and continuously monitor the process.


black belt - A specific Six Sigma term to describe a team leader and one who has achieved accredited 'Black Belt' qualification via an appropriate training course.


- A Six Sigma team member who has received Green Belt training and who works part-time on Six Sigma projects under the guidance of a Black belt team leader.



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Example topics taught:



Acceptance, and Acceptable quality level (ACL)


 - Acceptance has at least two different meanings in Six Sigma terminology, so be careful to understand which one is being referred to. Firstly, acceptance relating to quality is the quality expectation of the customer, internal or external. Acceptable Quality Level (ACL) means the same basically, in more formal Six Sigma-speak, and which will frequently be expressed in terms of percentage defects. acceptance refers to the buy-in or agreement of people affected by proposed actions and changes, notably stakeholders. While not strictly part of the Six Sigma battery of supporting tools, I can strongly recommend Sharon Drew Morgen's facilitative communications concepts for anyone struggling with stakeholder acceptance (and wholesale organizational change as well for that matter.)


Activity report


- A simple tool which enables teams and team leaders to manage project management tasks, responsibilities timescales.


Affinity Diagram


- A diagrammatic method of capturing, analyzing and organizing lots of ideas, elements, activities, etc., that together represent or influence an overall category, such as. The brainstorming method is central to structuring an affinity diagram, and 'post-it' or sticky notes are commonly used as a way of generating and organizing data. Commonly used in brainstorming solutions during the Improve stage of DMAIC.




 - Analysis of all sorts of data is a critical component the Six Sigma model, which involves using various analytical methods to identify and quantify the causes of quality variation and failure in specific processes. Various analysis perspectives are adopted, for example:

  • discrete - looking at a particular failure or problem - eg. Pareto ('80:20') or pie-charts to show causes by percentage

  • continuous - mapping performance variation and types, etc. using distribution graphs

  • process - creating detailed flow-diagrams to understand what's really going on in the process or sub-process




     - Despite first these are nothing to do with gymnastics or ice-skating moves. ANOVA is an acronym for analysis of variance, a specialized variation calculation method concerned with comparing means and testing hypotheses, best left to engineers and mathematicians. So are the related methods, ANCOVA (analysis of covariance), MANOVA (multiple analysis of variance), and MANCOVA (multiple analysis of covariance). Unless you are an engineer or a mathematician you will almost certainly have better things to do than get to grips with this level of statistical capability. Terms such as these illustrate why we need to work in multi-disciplined teams.


    - A sophisticated strategic analysis and improvement methodology developed by Kaplan and Norton which in its own right can sit outside Six Sigma, but which can be included within Six Sigma methods, and in any event might be used or referenced in the context of quality and performance improvement. The 'balanced scorecard' identifies, correlates, 'balances', measures and drives improvement across a wide variety of factors that are deemed responsible for overall organizational effectiveness, and for meeting customer expectations. The tool essentially translates strategy into operational metrics, and according to Motorola (ie., in a Six Sigma context) typically features the perspectives of, vision, current initiatives, business processes, and business results. 'Balanced Scorecard' became a generic 'brand' for business improvement in the 1990's, rather like Six Sigma, although arguably not on such a grand scale.



Black Noise/White Noise


- Technical terms relating to respectively non-random and random causes of variation.


Business Improvement Campaign


 - A Motorola Six Sigma buzz-phrase, which represents a leadership initiative to improve the business's 'big Y's'.


Business Process Management


- A common generic expression in its own right, but also a Six Sigma term for the initial strategic element of Six Sigma. Six Sigma's strategic first phase is designed to develop management's commitment to Six Sigma, and also management's active participation in the Six Sigma process (which suggests why a powerful brand name for the initiative, ie., Six Sigma, is helpful..). This amounts to identifying the key processes within the organization that effectively meeting customer expectations; then measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of the processes (notably measuring variation in quality and analyzing the causes), and then initiating improvements in the weakest processes, which should logically yield the greatest results and return on effort.


Cause-Effect Diagram


- Also known as the fishbone diagram, this is a generally used tool for mapping and analyzing causal factors towards an end output, so that contributing factors (and weaknesses can be more easily identified). Used especially in Six Sigma as a team brainstorming analysis tool. Called a fishbone diagram because the diagram plots contributing factors along parallel diagonal lines which each join a central horizontal time-line (like the ) which culminates at one end with the main issue or question.




- Critical To Quality - An element within a process that has a major influence on the process quality, and typically the quality of a critical process, or it would be unlikely to be receiving Six Sigma attention.


Defect -


 A vital and generic Six Sigma term for any failure in meeting customer expectation (internal and external customers) - any failure within the delivery process.


DFSS - Commonly used the abbreviation in Six Sigma activities and communications, it means Design For Six Sigma, and describes the method of using tools, training, measurements, and verification so that products and processes are designed at the outset to meet Six Sigma requirements. A more specific version is DMADV: Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, and Verify. Both DFSS and DMAVD are concerned with, and emphasize the importance of, using Six Sigma principles in product/process design, not just for remedial improvements - rather advocating that prevention is better than cure. Thus, if Six Sigma capability is built into new organizational systems and products when they are designed, so performance will be better, and the need for Six Sigma remedial effort will be reduced.




Central Six Sigma process and acronym to ensure you remember it: Define, Measure,

Analyze Improve, Control, more recently extended to DMAICT by others in the Six Sigma consulting and training communities, to Transfer (transfer best practice and thereby share learning).




- An alternative/substitute abbreviation to DFSS (Design For Six Sigma), and like DFSS DMADV is central to Six Sigma initiatives. DMADV more specifically describes a method comprising linked steps;


Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify


 -For ensuring that products and processes are designed at the outset to meet Six Sigma requirements.


Frequency Distribution/Frequency Distribution Analysis or Check Sheet


 - Frequency distribution and the check sheets and other frequency distribution measurement tools form an essential aspect of Six Sigma data analysis. Identifying frequency of variation in processes is central to Six Sigma, since customers are particularly sensitive to variation, arguably even more than isolated failures. Therefore the sampling and collection of data over many operations and extended time periods, and the use of this data to indicate  the frequency (number of times) that a variation occurs rather than the size of isolated failures, is an essential perspective for truly understanding what's happening, and the causes, within any critical delivery process. Frequency distribution analysis is an excellent antidote for any temptation to respond to an isolated failure with a knee-jerk quick fix, such as shooting the messenger or bollocking the workers when something deeper in the process is awry.



Just In Time (JIT)


 - Just In Time, commonly abbreviated to JIT, describes operational or production methods based on minimizing stock levels, the aim of which is to reduce capital employed in stock, which also has knock-on benefits to reducing storage space, decreasing dependence on logistics, easier supply chain management, and better overall quality. Just In Time is actually a capability arising from improvements within a business operation, rather than a cause of improvement itself. Introducing Just In Time methods without improving efficiency and reliability necessary to support it is not viable. Since Just In Time methods reducing stock levels to or even zero, JIT allows no room for error. Timing and predictability are crucial. JIT requires total commitment to quality and efficiency or the supply chain and related operations break down, the costs and implications of which can easily exceed any savings from JIT stock reductions. The term and methodology were developed by the Japanese during their post-war industrial revival (second half of the 1900s) as a logical progression from 'materials requirements planning' (MRP). The Japanese original terminology is 'kanban and is important within 'lean production' methodology. The aim of kanban is actually zero inventory. JIT features in highly efficient manufacturing and has more recently been significantly enabled by computerization, especially to analyze and manage timings rather than stock levels. Noted authors to have covered the subject include Edwards Deming, Taiichi Ohno, and Yasuhiro Monden. The acronyms page contains a definition of JIT.



Materials Requirements Planning (MRP)


 - production quality management methodology focusing on planning stock (materials and components of all sorts) levels and availability according to production schedules.


Pareto Principle, Pareto Diagram, Pareto Analysis


- The Pareto Principle is otherwise and more commonly known as the 80:20 rule. The Pareto Principle was named after its originator Vilfredo Pareto, (1848-1923) an Italian economist and professor of political economics at Lausanne University, who first discovered the 80:20 'rule' of 'predictable imbalance', that (as far as Six Sigma is concerned) provides a basis for focusing on the 20% of activities that generate 80% of results, or the 20% of failures that are responsible for 80% of the waste, etc. Pareto first made his discovery while analyzing wealth distribution among the British, in 1897. The Pareto Principle is also known as The Pareto Law, The Principle Of Least Effort, and The Principle Of Imbalance, which in themselves provide an example of the Pareto Principle in action because all the options, hardly anyone ever uses any other name than 'The 80:20 Rule'.  More Pareto explanation and examples in use.




-The word process is worth mentioning because it is a fundamental cause of confusion (and not just in Six Sigma, but that's another story). The word process is used heavily in describing how Six Sigma works, and it's also used heavily in referring to the service or production activities (processes) on which the Six Sigma methods (or processes) are directed. You see what I mean... It is both the subject and the object. People easily get confused by terminology at the best of times, so it's worth taking extra care when using words like process which have at least two distinctly different meanings. avoid phrases such as "Six Sigma is a process that uses processes to improve processes." It's true, but its a load of bollocks. So, when using the word process, check that people know what process you are actually referring to, and then you will have a fighting chance of not disappearing up your own backside.


Process Mapping


 - diagrammatical representation of how processes work, as could be used and developed in team meetings on a flip-chart, or other media, to enable teams to understand processes, participants, and where and how improvements might be made.


Production Planning


- generic term describing the over-arching methodology used in managing the supply process from receipt (or forecast) of customer requirements through to delivery notes and invoicing. Production planning therefore includes:

  • interpretation of customer orders/requirements
  • works orders
  • schedules and computer programs/ implications
  • parts, stocks materials
  • machinery, plant, equipment availability and allocation
  • people teams
  • quality and other targets - setting and monitoring
  • stock and purchasing monitoring and records
  • order processing, administration accounting
  • necessary inter-departmental liaison (e.g., sales, export)


     Production planning is typically highly modularized and computerized since process reliability is crucial and is systematically repeated, although production planning must also allow for variation in response to sales or other changing demands and product specifications. Production planning is generally a weekly and monthly requirement, as well as incorporating longer-term commitments and considerations. The particular sales environment and predictability of the market and business have major impacts on production planning. Volatile markets and unpredictable sales obviously make production planning more difficult. Costs and budgets, health and safety, environmental, and other indirect considerations or compliances are of course relevant to production, but not directly, and so are not included as integral parts of the process.


Q x A = E


- a natty little formula advanced by Six Sigma writer George Eckes for emphasizing and assessing the need for Six Sigma projects to feature both strong technical quality (Q and strong acceptance by the stakeholders of the project team's proposed solutions (A). E represents the excellence of the results, although why it should be E and not R rather defeats me. Whatever, the idea is a sound one, in that A is a multiplier and should along with Q be assessed in simple terms at the early phase of a Six Sigma project. Eckes suggests scoring each of Q and A out of 10, and that if E equals anything less than 60 then the project is unlikely to succeed, with the implication to return to improving technical quality and stakeholder buy-in.


Six Sigma


- how long have you got?.... at its most basic Six Sigma equates to 3.4 defects per million opportunities; at its most sophisticated (dare one suggest most hyped?..) Six Sigma is an organizational philosophy.


Soft Skills


- skills required for managing people, relationships, acceptance and effective communications. A potential area of vulnerability in many Six Sigma implementations, because of the predominance of Six Sigma team leaders with strong process skills and attention to detail, which can sometimes be at odds with the abilities of intuition, empathy, rapport-building, relationship-building, and other 'soft' people-skills.


- vitally important aspect, this one: stakeholders are not just customers, stakeholders are all the people who are affected by the solutions identified within a Six Sigma project, and all the people with some involvement in implementing the solutions.




- breaks for review between Six Sigma processes within any of the DMAIC stages.


Tree Diagram


- pictorial representation of how a broad aim is broken down into detailed actions, and which belong to named individuals or departments. A mapping technique that promotes creative thinking towards detailed causes and effects and accountabilities. Helps to avoid tendencies for activities and accountabilities to be left too vague.

Six Sigma History

      First and simply, Six Sigma is a quality improvement methodology.

      Six Sigma has also become a generic 'brand' for a set of concepts that many organizations have used, and continue to use, to improve quality, and to provide quality and performance improvement services and training.

      In this respect Six Sigma has Six Sigma is an immensely popular vehicle for initiating and supporting the process of organizational change. Six Sigma has become an industry in its own right. See the names of some of the major US organizations that have adopted Six Sigma in recent times.

Six Sigma is a very flexible concept: to engineer Six Sigma might be a production quality metric; to a customer service employee, or a CEO, Six Sigma can represent a corporate culture.


      The expression Six Sigma was first used in the context of quality improvement by American Motorola engineers in the mid 1980's. Initially within Motorola Six Sigma was purely a quality metric that was used to reduce defects in the production of electronic components.


     Six Sigma was then simply a statistical term that specifically referred to a performance target of 3.4 defects per million operations or 'opportunities' (DPMO).

The target of 3.4 defects per million operations which set by Motorola engineers was to an extent arbitrary and subjective. Even the calculations which arrive at 3.4 defects per million and which correlate to precisely six are open to debate and different interpretation. At this level, Six Sigma is a highly complex science, so it is not surprising that the meaning of Six Sigma had to change in order for it to become something that managers and employees could relate to.

     Sigma is Greek for the letter 'S', and the term 'sigma' has been used for many years by statisticians, mathematicians engineers, as a measurement unit of statistical variation.


      During the mid to late 1980's Motorola developed its Six Sigma ideas, which extended to and embraced many existing quality improvement methods and tools.

Motorola quickly that they could extend Six Sigma principles beyond manufacturing - to reduce variation and defects in all aspects of organizational performance.

      Following Motorola's success in defining and applying the Six Sigma methodology, Six Sigma became a transferable model. The early adopters of Six Sigma aside from Motorola were Allied Signal (a large avionics company which merged with Honeywell in 1999), and then more significantly the massive GE (General Electric) corporation; (according to most commentators the Six Sigma model was transferred between the Chief Executives of the respective organizations).


     GE particularly trumpeted its successes and multi-billion dollars of bottom-line improvements derived from Six Sigma, and by the end of the millennium Six Sigma was established as a mainstream management and had been adopted by very many of the world's largest corporations.

Strictly the Six Sigma brand is in the USA and belongs to Motorola  

      Motorola has since developed its own accredited, certified services and training for Six Sigma, within what is called the 'Motorola University'.

Many other organizations and consultancies of all sizes also develop and deliver Six Sigma training, and this activity seems not to be subject to particular mandatory control or accreditation (although Motorola certainly established structures and competencies). Seemingly anyone can start up as a Six Sigma consultant, just like anyone can start up as a quality management consultant, or a performance management consultant.

       Six Sigma grew quickly from a statistical process for reducing defects in production, to become a 'branded' and yet generic management methodology, whose elements extend far beyond the meaning of the original Six Sigma expression. So, Six Sigma is very flexible, and it continues to evolve, and it's difficult to describe.

What Six Sigma Can Do For Your Company!

     Perhaps the most objective way of looking at Six Sigma is to recognize that the Six Sigma methodology essentially provides a framework, and importantly a strongly branded corporate initiative, for an organization to:

  • train its people to focus on key performance areas
  • understand where the organization wants to go (its strategy, related to its market-place)
  • understand the services that the organization's customers need most
  • understand and better organize main business processes that deliver these customer requirements
  • measure (in considerable detail) and improve the effectiveness of these processes.


    Motorola, and as a rule other advocates of Six Sigma, say that as a management system, Six Sigma is a top-down method (ie., instigated at CEO-level) for executing business strategy by using and optimizing these process elements:

  • Aligning critical improvement efforts to business strategy.
  • Mobilizing teams to attack high-impact projects.
  • Accelerating the improvement of business results.
  • Governing efforts (of teams and people) to achieve and sustain improvements.

     Central also to Six Sigma purpose and method is increasing the clarity of business strategy and the metrics that most reflect success within it. Other more recognizable terms for these might be KRA's (Key Results Areas) and KPI's (Key Performance Indicators).

      While Six Sigma's attention to process quality variation is arguably greater than most other performance improvement methodologies, the basic principles of establishing and measuring critical processes are not earth-shatteringly new. What is new is arguably Six Sigma's focus (some would say obsessive focus) on detailed analysis.

      In this Six Sigma's emphasis on detail will logically appeal to organizations with a 'detail culture' and, organizations that have a high proportion of managers who enjoy focusing on accuracy, for corporations in industries such as engineering, technology, manufacturing, finance, etc.

(I'd be interested to know of any great successes of applying Six Sigma in fields where the organizational culture, service managerial profiles lean more towards people, communications, relationships, creativity, etc., for advertising and design, news and media, leisure and entertainment, sport and the arts, research and development, and teaching, training coaching. 

     Theoretically, Six Sigma is unlikely to prove hugely successful in environments where people are not good at or inclined to a lot of detailed measurement, processing checking, but I'm open to evidence to the contrary...)


     Six Sigma, while involving and relying on teams is a top-down methodology. This implies quite strongly centralized operating structures and behaviors. Many organizations thrive and depend on such dynamics, but some don't.

    Words like 'mobilize' and 'accelerate' and 'high-impact projects' imply that people need mobilizing, that improvement needs accelerating, and that people are not already engaged high-impact projects. If your organization already has lots of highly mobilized people, is successfully achieving fast-moving improvements, and people engaged high-impact projects, then probably Six Sigma is not for you.


    Six Sigma is likely to produce far greater returns in organizations that need to achieve these things compared to organizations that are already doing them!!!!!


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