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The nice thing about process improvement tools, is that many concepts and tools can apply to any industry, whether it is manufacturing or transactional-service related. As a matter of fact, there are many financial service companies that have applied Six Sigma in their mortgage processes, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Union Bank, and Chase.

The two main questions to ask are:

  1. Do you have process issues where cycle time is an issue for the customer?
  2. Do you have errors or defects that occur in the process that create re-work or that impact the customer?

If the answer is YES to either of these, process improvement can apply!

The Six Sigma approach uses DMAIC for problem-solving, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control. There are various tools within each of these phases to help you resolve process issues. Without explaining in great detail what DMAIC entails (it would be most helpful to take the Yellow Belt Training & Certification), conceptually the goal is:

  1. Define: Understand and build profound knowledge of the current state of the process
  2. Measure: Determine what measure you’re looking to improve
  3. Analyze: Understand the root causes to the problem
  4. Improve: Design future state and implement solutions and validate if the solutions worked
  5. Control: Sustain the improvement

The tools that get used most often in transactional-service related processes are the following:

  1. A Process Map to understand the current state in the Define Phase: This can be a swim lane map, Value Stream map, or a SIPOC. Understanding current state, is typically where teams discover that the current state does not work exactly as people thought, and often some root causes to problems can be discovered while mapping the current state.
  2. A Histogram for projects related to cycle time in the Measure Phase: Almost every project that has a goal to reduce lead time, cycle time or increase speed, has a histogram to show current performance to the target in the Measure phase, and again in the Improve phase to show the improvement in cycle time after solutions have been implemented
  3. A Fishbone Diagram to explore root causes in the Analyze Phase: This is a tool to help teams organize root causes, and prioritize which root causes they would like to work on.
  4. A Pareto chart to help understand data in more detail in the Analyze Phase: There are so many applications and uses for the Pareto chart, A very common use is to understand the types of defects that are occurring in a process. For example, if you have a form with errors, a Pareto chart can help you understand what type of errors are occurring the most.

Hopefully these simple and popular tools will help you get started.

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.