This is part 1 of a five-part series on Six Sigma practices for the automotive industry.

When a business recognizes an imbalance between where its processes should be and where they actually are, you assume that it would investigate the problem.

Initially, all the business can state with full confidence about its situation is what may be observed: an indicator of the current state of the business. However, the desired future state has already been dictated by the customer.  And those two states don’t always match.

When the business compares customer demands with the current state of the process,  it can determine what the problem is and what the goal will be . This comparison can also help the business decide if the problem is even one worth trying to repair.

But how do you begin to identify the problem?

Define Your Problem Through Six Sigma Principles.

First, make sure you can explain your existing process. Six Sigma suggests keeping a clear focus on the basic facts when explaining the steps of a process. The descriptions must be free of any one person’s opinion and must also be scientific. Once you understand your existing process, you can move on.

The Define phase is the first of the five steps of Six Sigma’s DMAIC approach, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. It is often the case that the Define phase takes a significantly longer amount of time to complete than the four following steps. This is the point at which the problem is identified and the goal is determined as a result of known customer feedback. While such information is generated in the Define phase through discussions with subject matter experts, various tool are also used to determine the necessary scope and to remain within the agreed upon boundaries.

Your Problem Statement and Goal Statement Go Hand-in-Hand.

Your Problem statement describes the present state, and it is measured in a way that emphasizes the primary performance metric. Your Goal statement describes the desired future state measured using the same metric. The consistent approach to the present and to the future provides a scientific platform from which you may accurately measure progress.

It is critical that Problem statements only refer to your current state and do not contain any ideas for solution. A suggested check for a Problem statement is to see that there are numerical descriptions that strictly describe the observed symptoms rather than the possible causes. The true cause of your problem might be very different from what you initially perceive it to be, and jumping to conclusions too swiftly can lead you astray.

It is just as important that your Goal statement address the need for a realistic goal. Your goal should be S.M.A.R.T. (Smart, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable, Time bound). A suggested check for a Goal statement is to make sure that the description is consistent with the Problem statement. It must include a time deadline by which the goal should be reached. Your Goal statement should also describe the desired future state using the same performance metric used in the Problem statement. It must require a performance level that is historically attainable if that level meets customer expectations. Historical data is key in determining what is a reasonable and an attainable goal. In most cases, the existing process might have delivered the desired results in the past. If the data is collected consistently over the time period since then, those measurements can be used as a reference when setting the goal.

You May Want to Achieve Entitlement.

In the context of Six Sigma, “entitlement” refers to the best performance ever measured with the current process in place. Entitlement provides a reference point for what is a reasonable goal and what is likely to be the highest expected performance out of the same process.

However, entitlement doesn’t always provide levels of performance that match the customer’s desire. It is important to take into consideration that there might be design constraints regarding the achievement of such performance levels, and those can be considered indicators of the magnitude of necessary change. The customer defines quality, and the customer demand shapes the goal. Ultimately, changes in environment require continuous review of processes, which are in place for changes in goals.

Reconcile Your Present and Future.

The present state and future state are bridged only in the later phases of DMAIC, during which Six Sigma offers tools to help create a higher resolution picture of both states. The project leader plunges deeper into the root causes of existing systems and learns how the process can be improved to achieve the desired performance level.

In the next part of this series, the Measure phase, we will focus on how to decide what to measure, what data to collect, how to plan for data collection, and how to collect that data to find the much needed answers.

photo credit: Problem solving fortune cookie via photopin (license)

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