Learn about six sigma to improve workplace processes

A team using six sigma to improve workplace processes

Process improvement is one of the most difficult parts of business leadership. In sectors that rely on high-quality knowledge work and often lengthy and complex processes, it can be hard to gain clear visibility into all the factors that contribute to business outcomes and identify where processes might be working suboptimally or even be broken.

Change is a constant — organizations are always adapting to both internal and external pressures, and this larger change invariably translates into changes at the process level. The pace of change and its impact can be hard to track. Six sigma can help organizations better understand their processes, identify what needs to be optimized and how, and facilitate the implementation of process refinement strategies to improve business outcomes.

In this guide to six sigma, you’ll learn:

What is six sigma?

Six sigma is a method for improving business processes that equips teams and organizations with both concepts and strategies for process improvement. It was initially developed by Motorola for the manufacturing sector as a quality management approach, with the aim of using statistical modeling to reduce the likelihood of error in repeated processes. It yielded such impressive results that it has since been adapted for use in improving a wide variety of business processes in non-manufacturing industries.

From healthcare to government to human performance consulting applications, six sigma is a widely used strategy for streamlining workflows and optimizing outcomes across virtually any line of business. If a process optimization approach isn’t currently being used at your organization or department, chances are that unrealized gains await with the application of a six sigma approach.

Six sigma is a powerful method that can yield significant improvements in both operational processes and business outcomes if approached skillfully.

Two 5-step methodologies for six sigma

Six sigma as a process improvement approach is also a process itself, with a series of important steps that aim to thoroughly examine and refine steps and outcomes. Different iterations of the six sigma methodology have been developed to address varied industry and task-specific needs and to tailor approaches to existing or new processes. These approaches are similar enough in aim to be grouped together under the six sigma umbrella.

DMAIC: Define, measure, analyze, improve, and control

DMAIC is a five-step methodology for business improvement typically used to optimize existing processes. Though steps are laid out in a sequence, their application doesn’t always have to be linear — steps can be revisited and reapplied as necessary. This is an approach that encourages backtracking to earlier steps if more information is required.

  1. Define — During this phase, the team works to understand and articulate the problem, what the desired fix looks like, and what is — and is not — included in the project. Clear boundaries are essential in order to keep the project within a reasonable scope and to isolate the processes that contribute to the issue. Important steps in this phase include process mapping (e.g., customer needs, process inputs and outputs, dependencies), defining objectives, and drafting a process charter. Process maps are completed through in-depth collaboration with process owners and participants to arrive at clarity and consensus. This phase concludes with the project team circling back to confirm or adjust the process focus and make sure aims are aligned with business goals and stakeholder interests.
  2. Measure — The team here looks at the performance of the process to gain a better understanding of general process health and also see where issues might exist in the workflow. Data is collected for better visibility of every part of the process — from lead time to quality of outputs. This measurement provides a baseline from which to determine the next steps.
  3. Analyze — Analyzing data helps teams understand what is causing problems before they begin to prescribe solutions. This step is important and can require restraint — skipping analysis can be tempting if resolutions seem clear and intuitive. But letting data speak for itself is essential in making truly informed decisions about process correction.
  4. Improve — This is where the rubber meets the road after discovery efforts have yielded a clear definition of issues, their parameters and causes, and what might be done to create better workflows. Ideas for how to implement countermeasures are fully developed and piloted in this phase, and data is collected to determine if changes have yielded improvements.
  5. Control — The final phase of the DMAIC process is about sustaining improvements. Maintaining hard-won gains is as important as making them in the first place, so project teams need to put guidelines in place to make sure processes stay lean and clean. This can be achieved by creating monitoring and response plans. Process owners then have the responsibility to make sure process changes are maintained and kept current with best practices.

DMADV: Define, measure, analyze, design, verify

DMADV is a less common, five-step methodology aimed at developing new processes, products, and services as opposed to optimizing existing ones. This method is grounded in data and used in situations where early identification of success is an important consideration.

  1. Define — In this approach, definition is about articulating the goals, measurement criterion, and success metrics for the product or process to be developed. These aims are gathered from customer and stakeholder requirements, and they help to clearly define project parameters.
  2. Measure — Teams here further define how they will measure success and develop assessment guides in detail. Design parameters, evaluation scorecards, and risk assessments are created during the measurement phase for use during all phases of design and development.
  3. Analyze — Analysis of options yields further project direction in this step. The cost of the total lifecycle of design alternatives is estimated, and options are evaluated against criteria established during the measurement phase to determine which designs will best meet project goals.
  4. Design — This is the process of developing different iterations of selected plans — both detailed and high level. Pilots, prototypes, and models of selected designs are developed to identify how well they work against established metrics and surface areas for improvement.
  5. Verify — The final step of the DMADV process includes the validation of the process or product against project specifications and requirements. Iterative pilot and production runs are continued during this phase, and the next steps for the fulfillment of the product or process are determined.

Six sigma belt levels

Six sigma uses a belt ranking system similar to karate for certifications and training. This framework provides skill building and motivation for those interested in professional process improvement. As in karate, beginners start with a white belt and finish their training with a mastery-level black belt. Each of these color bands represents a specific skillset and defines the roles and responsibilities a belt holder can have on a six sigma project.

Six sigma certification

Formal six sigma certification improves management and leadership skills (in addition to supporting process improvement abilities) and is a great option for business leaders looking to lead processes, teams, and organizations toward growth and optimization. Certification can provide the skills necessary for complex problem-solving at an advanced level, across many industries.

To become certified, a person must enroll in a certification program and pass the requirements for each level. Many organizations will offer certification to their employees. Alternatively, universities and dedicated six sigma certification programs offer training to those seeking it on their own. As belt colors become more prestigious, certification material becomes more difficult.

Real-life examples of six sigma

Examples of six sigma in actual business settings abound. Project improvement methodologies might apply to:

One real-life example comes from Boeing. The aerospace company was having issues with fan components in its engines. It couldn’t identify the source of the problem and brought in six sigma experts who discovered that both foreign object damage (FOD) and electrical issues caused by a manufacturing problem were the root cause of the malfunction.

Six sigma FAQ

There’s a lot to learn about six sigma. Here are some common questions and answers.

What is lean six sigma?

Lean six sigma is related to but different from six sigma in that it emphasizes minimizing waste as much as possible.

Less centered on defect prevention in manufacturing than standard six sigma approaches, the lean project management method focuses on waste elimination with the aim of running an organization at maximum efficiency. Lean six sigma is the combination of both lean and six sigma approaches and aims to remove wasted time, material, or effort from a process.

What does six sigma mean?

Six sigma standard deviation

Standard deviation is the measure of variation in a set of data and is also known as sigma or σ. A six sigma process has an average that is six standard deviations from the nearest specification limit. The more standard deviations between the process mean (average) and acceptable process limits fit, the less likely that the process goes beyond acceptable limits and causes a defect. So, a 6σ (six sigma) process performs better than processes with a lower sigma number.

What is six sigma training?

Training in six sigma requires the successful completion of iterative courses from yellow belt through mastery, and it helps validate and certify professionals who are skilled in identifying and mitigating risks to improve processes. For those looking to build skills and obtain certification, there’s a variety of options to engage principles and practice in a formal way. Many standalone and university-based certification programs offer courses and exams globally.

What are the most common six sigma metrics?

Ten of the most common metrics used in six sigma approaches are:

Common six sigma metrics

Common six sigma metrics (cont.)

Getting started with six sigma

Workfront dashboard

Six sigma is a powerful method that can yield significant improvements in both operational processes and business outcomes if approached skillfully. Whether a DMAIC approach is used on existing processes or DMADV is employed to design a future product, six sigma is an approach that minimizes waste and improves outcomes across a wide variety of industries.

Process optimization is at the heart of six sigma. Adobe Workfront is a cloud-based project management platform designed with process optimization in mind, to align and automate workflows for optimal performance across teams and organizations. Its integrated and intuitive features make workflows seamless and efficient.

Workfront brings six sigma principles to life by improving digital workflows and empowering collaboration. Take the Workfront product tour to see how easy it is to optimize processes for your own projects and teams.

If you’re keen to get started with a six sigma approach, there are a couple of steps you can take right away. Find out what courses and training offerings might be available within your company, and who in your team or department might offer mentorship and guidance in both training and practice.

If your organization doesn’t offer training, do an online search for professional development in your area and see if there are opportunities that match your interest and availability. The Council for Six Sigma Certification is a good place to start looking for official courses, and the site provides guidelines for finding accredited training. Finally, ask your program about any affiliated online or local communities of professional practice where you might make connections and learn from others with similar interests.