Define – Phase 1 (of 5) of Lean Six Sigma

What problem would you like to solve? Define is the first Phase of the Lean Six Sigma improvement process. In this Phase the project team drafts a Project Charter, builds a high-level map of the process and begins to explore the needs of the customers of the process. This is a critical Phase where the team outlines the project focus for themselves and the leadership of the organization.

Define the Problem by Developing a “Problem Statement”

Focus on a meaningful but manageable problem that impacts the customer

Sometimes the hardest part about being a problem-solver is choosing which problem to fix without jumping to a solution. Teams usually begin by “fixing what bugs them” but ultimately the best projects focus on improving customer satisfaction.

Confirm the problem is a priority and will have a substantial impact

Having established a problem, the team creates a Problem Statement which includes:

  • A Main Process Measure: Use a measure that impacts the customer of the process. Customers have two process-related “buckets” of concern: Lead Time and Quality. Lead Time reflects the length of time from request to delivery of a product or service. Quality can be many things; accuracy, completeness, number of defects, etc. Simply ask: Are you trying to make the process flow faster? Or are you trying to make the product or service better?
  • The Severity of the Issue: It’s key to answer the question, “How big is the problem?” This could reflect things like the percentage of units with errors or the number of late orders per month. It’s important to be specific in order to provide perspective on the issue. Severity data may not be available right away which means the team fills in the blanks later during the Measure Phase.

Confirm resources are available

An important first step is to assign a project team lead, also known as a Green Belt or Black Belt, as well as someone in a leadership position, referred to as a Sponsor or Project Champion. Team members can come from different areas of the organization but should all have some connection to the project area. Are there people close to the process who can spend time working on the issue? Is there someone in a leadership position who would like to see the issue resolved? It is critical to involve people that work in the process.

Define the Goal by Developing a “Goal Statement”

The Goal Statement should be a direct reflection of the Problem Statement. For example, if orders are 10% late, then the goal might be to cut that down to 5% late. This statement defines, in measurable, time-bound terms, exactly when the team and project will be considered successful. Of course, this can be adjusted once the root causes are determined during the Analyze Phase.

Define the Process by Developing Process Maps

The team establishes the a bird’s-eye view of the processwith a high-level process map. A typical high-level map is the SIPOC which stands for Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs and Customers. Another high-level map, more closely aligned with cycle time reduction projects, is the Value Stream Map. Either of these maps can be used throughout the life of the project.

Once the high-level map is completed, a great way to understand the process in more detail is to conduct a Process Walk, also known as a “Gemba Walk.” During this walk, the project team conducts a series of interviews with process participants to get a full picture of the actual work done at each step. This information helps the team to build a detailed map. Detailed mapping can be done with a Swimlane Map format—which uses lanes representing departments—or it can be depicted with a simple flow-chart.

Define the Customer and Their Requirements

The focus of each project is the customer of the process. The customer is defined as the individuals or groups who receive the goods or services of the process. Customers can be external to the organization or an internal component of the organization. (For example, Human Resources has internal customers: the employees of the organization.)

During the Define Phase, the team seeks to better understand customers and their requirements. After interviewing or surveying customers, the team translates that information into measurable requirements that provide the team with insight on how to improve the process or solve the problem.

Inform Others of Project Progress

The team regularly updates the Project Sponsor, or Champion, of their progress and confirms they are on track to solve a worthwhile process issue. One of the best ways to update Sponsors and Stakeholders is the A3. The A3 is a customizable, one-page document used to easily communicate the team’s though process and the project status to others.

Another important group to stay connected to are the individuals who could be impacted by changes to the process being addressed. Stakeholder Analysis and management begins in the Define Phase and the team communicates with this key group throughout the project. This helps ensure they feel a sense of ownership and stay engaged throughout the improvement process.

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