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Understanding the concept of Continuous improvement through Six Sigma

Understanding the concept of Continuous improvement through Six Sigma

Aug, 09th 18

Six Sigma is a systematic approach towards product/process development using a set of techniques and tools. Using the Six Sigma methodologies can have an immensely positive impact on the business garnering huge profits with reduced investments and waste. In a nutshell, it focuses on managing, improving and smoothening the process flow whilst taking measures to control/minimize the waste.


Lean and Six Sigma:


The major components contributing to the concept of continuous improvement are Lean and Six Sigma. These key components compliment each other and ensure that improvements are made when applied to a process. Lean and Six Sigma go hand in hand and share a common goal while dealing with a process. Those following these approaches are benefitted in various ways alongside improvements in business.


Let’s take a look at the origin of these approaches,


The Six Sigma approach was first used in the late 1980’s by Bill Smith, Motorola. He adopted the Six Sigma approach as a means to measure improvements and as a part of quality management.  Later, this approach was used by the entire organization in various departments as it was highly effective. Several organizations and large businesses, too, adopted the Six Sigma methodologies and garnered huge benefits.


Now, talking about the lean, this was the approach that changed the way companies handle manufacturing processes. When the first production process was integrated back in 1450’s by Henry Ford, automobile manufacturing became a top business. With passing years and the need for improvements, in the 1930’s, Kiichiro Toyoda and others working at Toyota decided to come up with a solution. Toyota came up with some of the greatest insights that aimed at obtaining high quality, high variety, and low-cost production. Then, the lean process was developed and introduced to the market. Its methodologies were first published in a book called “The machine that changed the world”. Later, the second volume of this was released naming “Lean Thinking”. That said, Lean has proven to be one of the greatest assets to the manufacturing business. In fact, lean is even being applied to various other fields of businesses like healthcare, construction, retail etc.

Hence, with the emergence and growth in Lean Six Sigma, the concept of continuous improvement came into existence. Continuous improvement through Six Sigma is the method commonly adopted by several organizations for better and profitable functioning of the business. The aim here is to reduce the variant and companies adopting this method seem to reduce the variation rate drastically. While companies using three sigma method produce thousands of defects for a million opportunities, those using Six Sigma make about 3-4 defects for the same.


Clearly, the companies with fewer defect rates are preferred by the customers. This is why Six Sigma is widely adopted and no organization is willing to risk customer satisfaction.


Understanding the approach:


The approach used for continuous improvement of a process differs based on the requirement. For instance, let’s explore the approach used for business and project. Although the aim remains same i.e. minimizing losses and improving the process, the approach is different in the two scenarios.


It is imperative to note that the Six Sigma method is a closed loop method and specializes in continuous improvement. Let’s understand the approach from a business related point of view,


In this, the goals and areas to focus on are decided based on the business strategy. Keeping that in mind, improvisation goals for Six Sigma are set. Once this is clear, the next step is to use Six Sigma methodologies to achieve those defined goals.


It involves several steps like,


  • At the beginning of the process, the teams are handled by managers who are in turn answerable to the top management.


  • The top management plays a vital role in the process as it provides the required resources.


  • Once the process starts, the top management keeps a regular check on the team and caters to their needs.


  • On successful completion of the process, the management then conducts the verification steps like quality check and control.


  • The final step is to maintain the efficiency and control of the process. This is done to avoid future losses and minimize existing ones.


Once the final stage is reached, audits are conducted to ensure quality and measures are implemented to maintain improvements. In case of deviation, the process is altered with changes in business strategy plans.

From a Project related point of view, this is how it goes,


The project teams using Six Sigma methodologies follow the DMAIC rule. In this, improvements are made at various steps which are as follows,


  • Define – Firstly, the goals of the project, issues, and targets are defined.


  • Measure – In case of issues, the intensity of the problem is measured.


  • Analyze – The issue is analyzed and the root cause is found. Appropriate measures to eliminate the root cause are taken.


  • Improve – In this step, solutions are implemented to fix/avoid process problems.


  • Control – The aim of this step is to maintain the steady functioning of the process and avoid future disruptions by proper control.


These approaches can be used as a driving force in following a Business Process Improvement (BPI) plan. However, planning improvement strategy and actually achieving the desired results are two different things. It requires full support and cooperation from the team. The team leader plays a vital role in carrying out the plan and he/she is required to ensure the smooth flow of the process. Here are the steps one can follow for BPI,


Setting baselines:


Once the team is ready, the first step is to set some solid goals based on the analysis. By analyzing the current situation and growth patterns from previous years, one can find the areas that need improvement.


Process Maps:


The role of process maps can’t be underestimated. The process map is to be created at the base level or functional level by the design or production team. It gives the team a sense of direction and ensures proper flow throughout the project phases.


Customer point of view:


Understanding the customer’s point of view before planning for the production of a process is crucial. Whilst making an important decision, keeping the needs of the customer is the key. This brings the team close to profitable processes.


Non-value added steps:


On carefully scrutinizing each step on the process map, one can readily identify the weak points. These are the steps that are involved in the process but don’t really serve any purpose to customer’s needs or product quality. Such steps can be eliminated to further the improvement plan.


In conclusion, the continuous improvement of Lean Six Sigma is a promising approach. Over the past few years, it has seen immense growth and several businesses rely on this technique to date. With the right knowledge, skills and proper usage of these techniques, any process can be improved to a great extent. Nevertheless, teamwork, too, plays a vital role in the application and handling of these techniques for the betterment of the organization. 


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