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A Tour of Methods, Part 1

Establish a culture of continuous improvement around a central method for solving problems. Adopt one of the common ones or use them as inspiration for your own.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutionsEach organization has its own culture. It is a natural phenomenon of any group of social creatures. We can either let our culture form around us as it may, or we can deliberately cultivate it to be what we desire. Because culture is an outcome of common beliefs and behaviors, we can influence our own organizational culture with common systems and practices.

Almost every improvement program or methodology has an easily communicated and followed approach to solving problems. In cultivating our own cultures of improvement, we can pick one of the many methods already in common practice. However, in examining the many methods available, we see some common threads. We can use those observations to intelligently construct our own to meet the needs of our own organization and the culture we already have, or the culture we want to produce.

Here are some brief descriptions of the various systems that I have encountered and used. They come from a number of different environments. The famous Six Sigma roadmap uses the acronym, DMAIC, which represents the following steps to problem solving:

  1. Define.
  2. Measure.
  3. Analyze.
  4. Improve.
  5. Control.

The Six Sigma method is an excellent one for us to explore, because it has all of the same elements as the other methods to examine, as well as some custom elements included for very specific methodological and cultural reasons.

The first and most important step is to define the problem. A clear and concise problem statement lends focus for a team or process group to quickly and effectively communicate the same idea so that they are all trying to solve the same issue. Six Sigma produces a culture of proving improvement and assessing the value of improvements, so it is critical to measure the current performance before making changes.

The analyze step is all about determining the root cause of the issue so that the cause can be addressed, and the improvement can be genuine and sustainable. Once the root cause is understood, we can improve upon the process. I believe that the word “improve” was selected for a very deliberate reason. It implies that perfection is not necessary to execute an improvement. Any significant improvement, even if incremental, is worthwhile. Also, it implies that no process is ever done being improved.

Finally, the method demands a control step. It recognizes that improvements often revert to old ways if they are not decisively and deliberately maintained. It is a very insightful part of the methodology.

Many people perceive that executing these steps takes too long. It doesn’t have to be that way. Long execution is more a matter of proficiency and execution than the approach. The five-step roadmap can be executed in five minutes for many simple problems. Likewise, we don’t need to be doing complex statistical analyses in order to warrant the approach. It can be used for any problem; for example, packing for your next trip to visit family.

Define the problem as packing the family for a stay with relatives. Last year, it took six hours to pack everyone, several family members still weren’t finished when it was time to leave, and two people didn’t remember everything they needed when we got there. That’s enough of a measure for this exercise. This year, we want different performance and results.

We analyze the root cause and determine that we didn’t do a good job of telling everyone what they needed to pack, especially the kids who have less travel experience than Mom and Dad. Our improve step for this year is to sit down with each family member and generate a list of things to pack. The list will be based on the activities that are expected or planned. Then each member will pack the items on their list.

We control the packing process with the lists. We will also endeavor to keep the kids (and parents) focused on packing and not playing. By declaring it to be packing hour and setting everyone to task at the same time, we get a little better focus. Every time we observe someone who does not appear to be packing, we ask if they have packed everything on their list. If they say “yes,” we run through the list and check it off. If we find errors, we send them back to finish the job.

We might not get completely done in an hour, but we are done in less than two, well ahead of when it is time to leave; and as long as our lists were well thought out, we don’t have any forgotten items this time. See? It’s simple to execute the process and no fancy statistics are required.

I offer the example as representative of any of the methods we will examine here. They are all simple and versatile in that they can be applied to virtually any problem.

Let’s look at the popular Kaizen approach, which would be the best example of a method commonly applied to the Lean methodology. It lists out as follows:

  1. Plan.
  2. Do.
  3. Check.
  4. Act.

First, we plan our change or improvement. The plan step can be simple or complex as needed. It implies some analysis of the problem, and some risk assessment and mitigation, as well as making arrangements for proper materials and supplies, again as necessary or appropriate. Plan is a little word that can mean a great deal.

Do means that we construct or enable the improvement or change we have planned, and then we check to make sure that it does what we intended. Only once we are sure that we like the change, do we act to execute the change and make it the official way forward henceforth.

It’s both simple and versatile, with deliberate measures to reasonably manage risk and make sure that changes are not willy-nilly, but are carefully planned and verified before final execution. It implies a certain level of experimentation and testing, which demonstrates its birthplace on the production floor where it is often more productive to try and see than to analyze things to death.

We could just as easily see how the plan-do-check-act method could work for our packing the family for a trip. It is important to observe that there is no one right method. The key is to find or design a method that inspires the behaviors that your organization most needs.

The Design for Six Sigma approach is less consistent than others. Several roadmaps or step-processes have been incorporated throughout its evolution and expansion. Perhaps the DMADV method is most common because it is so analogous to the DMAIC method that already prevails in many Six Sigma cultures. It breaks down as follows:

  1. Define.
  2. Measure.
  3. Analyze.
  4. Design.
  5. Verify.

Sometimes a “control” step is added to the end of the approach. You see that, to accommodate a function, we change the language from improve and control to design and verify. There is an important observation to make here. The language of the method should be chosen or adjusted to meet the needs of the culture for which it is employed.

An earlier, and still popular, method for Design for Six Sigma is IDOV or PIDOV. It has some significant implications of problem-solving process that warrant a brief review. The acronym means the following:

  1. Plan.
  2. Identify.
  3. Design.
  4. Optimize.
  5. Verify or validate.

It is a method born out of product development functions and represents a typical approach to product development. First, we plan a product development effort, including assigning resources and funding, and setting a deadline. We identify the requirements and needs of the solution, and then proceed to design a solution.

Because design for Six Sigma centers on a philosophy of developing products that minimize variation and make the best use of existing processes, or adjusting processes to ensure consistent error-free production, it is important to experiment and adjust the design and accompanying processes for optimal performance. Hence, we deliberately communicate the need to optimize the design. Finally, we verify that it performs to expectations before we launch it.

Notice that the two Design for Six Sigma models described are very similar in how they drive solutions, though the acronyms are very different. Likewise, they are similar to the Six Sigma and Kaizen methods in terms of approach, though the language is different. The language is adjusted to fit an environment of making new instead of fixing old. My point is that our human thought process for solving problems is basically the same, regardless of language or context.

Please tune into the Chemical Equipment Daily for part two of this two-part piece. What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below! For more information, please visit