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Define Phase -

What problem would you like to fix? The Define Phase is the first phase of the Lean Six Sigma improvement process. In this phase the project team creates a Project Charter, a high-level map of the process and begins to understand the needs of the customers of the process. This is a critical phase in which 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 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 high impact

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

  • An identified Measure that impacts the customer. 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, defect-free, etc. Simply ask: Are you trying to make the process go faster? Or are you trying to make the product or service better?
  • Severity. This answers 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 keep data in perspective. 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 Black Belt or Green Belt, as well as someone in a leadership position, who is called 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 issue 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.

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WebinarHow to Select the Right Improvement Projects

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 only 5%. 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.

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Tools: Project Charter

Define the Process by Developing Process Maps

The team begins with the a bird’s eye view of the process, also known as a high-level process map. One high-level map is called a SIPOC which stands for Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs and Customers. Another high-level map, more closely aligned with cycle time reduction projects, is a Value Stream Map. Either of these maps is 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. 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 create a detailed map. Detailed mapping can be make use of Swimlane Maps which uses lanes representing departments or it can be done as a simple flow-chart.

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Tools: SIPOC, Value Stream Map and Swimlane Map


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Video: The Process Walk Video – An Overview of What, Why and How

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.

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Tools: Voice of the Customer (VOC) Translation Matrix and Tree Diagram

Inform Others of Project Progress

The team regularly updates the Project Sponsor or Champion of their progress and confirms they are still pursuing 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 communicate project status to others in a quick and simple way. Stakeholder Analysis begins in the Define Phase as well and the team revisits this key group throughout the project to ensure that others are engaged in improving the process.

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Tools: A3, Relationship Map and Stakeholder Analysis