Using Lean Six Sigma to Solve Workplace Production Issues & Inefficiencies

When a problem arises in the workplace it’s only natural to want to fix it as soon as possible. The most common response to a lapse in efficiency or production is to find the most immediate and apparent cause of an issue and implement steps to correct it. While this approach is not inherently wrong, it does often mean jumping to conclusions and basing solutions not entirely upon solid evidence. Sometimes, when the implemented solution does not fully remedy the underlying problems that lead to an issue in the first place, we can actually waste more time and resources by acting too quickly if we end up having to revisit a problem a second or third time. The Lean Six Sigma approach is not only a way to effectively solve problems in production, but it also allows you to get at the underlying causes of problems and to assess which you should be addressing first. The process is completed in five phases:  Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control.

Let’s take a look at each step in depth, and show how it would apply to a real world problem.

Define:  This stage of the Lean Six Sigma process is all about defining your problems and narrowing in on what exactly it is you want to tackle. The first step is to use existing data to confirm that there is indeed a problem. This might be something like a slump in production for a given period of time despite demand remaining steady. If a team can look at output measurements and confirm a problem is occurring, they can move forward.

Next the team needs to figure out how severe the issue is:  What impact will it have on the business in the long and short term?  How many departments are affected?

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Finally, set a measurable goal for your team. If the slump in production has caused 5% of orders to be late, maybe your goal is to bring that number back to 0%, or 1%, or whatever your data shows as average over your most productive months.

Measure:  You have data showing there’s a problem, now make plans to collect more data regularly so that you can see day to day changes in any solutions you implement. Taking measurements at regular intervals also gives you enough data points to see trends, and possibly identify the root causes of your problems. For example, maybe certain days are consistently low and bringing your average production for the month down; are there certain employees working on those days?  Is there a certain day of the week with low output?  Incorporate your findings into a team mission statement about what needs to change.

Analyze:  Analysis is an extension of measurement, and is about bringing various sets of data together. In many situations, you may have multiple team members measuring different things in the proceeding step, and in the Analyze phase you can bring those data sets together so further identify root causes of waste and defects. Analysis also involves re-visiting your research and data collection until the team is in agreement that they have a grasp on the issue and further data collection will not aid their understanding of the issue. At this point, it’s time to move on to…

Improve:  Throughout the process, ideas have probably been brought up as to how production can be corrected and now is the time to look at them with a full understanding of the issue(s) at hand. If these solutions are still relevant based on the most recent data, then it’s time to start implementing them. If not, the team will have to brainstorm about how to best address any new problems uncovered in the measure and analyze stages. Once the best solutions are agreed upon, the team must begin practical implementation including but not limited to documentation, training, communication with workers, and any new logistical considerations that might enter the workplace as a result of improvements being made.

Control:  Control is all about keeping the effects of your solutions from the improve phase ongoing. The most important factor in the continued success of your ideas is that they are as important to employees as they are to you, and that workers understand how to keep them ongoing. In this phase, you’ll want to share the process the team went through to arrive at the conclusions they did with your employees so that they can easily understand why new policies are in place. If employees can easily grasp what lead to solutions or changes in their day to day tasks, they are much less likely to question or ignore them, and your improvement will be more likely to last.