November 17, 2010

Welcoming the World of Six Sigma

Well, I have to admit that my entries of late have been sparse. Infact, sparse is most probably an understatement. There is a very good reason for this though. Long days of study mixed with the occasional even longer day of necessary paid work has left me with little time for blogging. This has, however, given me time to gather my thoughts about the past few days.

We have recently started our module of PIUSS, or Process Improvement using Six Sigma for my few readers who aren't familiar with MBE acronyms.

The question we started with is "what is six sigma?". Our introduction to the topic, compounded with some excellent elearning exercises run by PMI (Project Management Institute) answered this for us. While at thge beginning, the idea of six sigma as a tool for improvement seemed quite vague, our understanding developed through the excercises and we quickly became aware that rather than a set method of process improvement, six sigma provided a toolbox (a rather large one at that) from which a variety of tool could be used within a structured systematic approach to improving a process that is suited to the organisation. In terms of six sigma, improvement is encapsulated by the ideas of reducing variation within a process and thus stabilising the process, and reducing costs of the process. The elearning excercises put all this into perspective by demonstrating six sigma implementation within a set example, showing the various stages of the improvement cycle (DMAIC) and the tools used for each step. We were introduced to project charters, SIPOC charts, SPC charts, histograms, fishbone diagrams, and many many more.

Putting our knew found knowledge to the test, the week so far comprised of the simple enough exercise of the creation of a process to build mecano airplanes. 14 stages of the process, 7 operators, 1 plane, lead time of above 5 minutes per plane. Simple production line. But could we improve this? Time for bring in Six Sigma. The next day I can only describe as chaotic semi organised fun! Despite the tools and processes being fresh in our minds, it became apparent that introducing improvement even in such a "simple" process was a challenge. Our first challenge was a lack of direction. Despite being part of a group of strong willed and intelligent people, nobody jumped forward as leader. In part i think this was down to using the terminology of "leader". To me it seemed nobody wanted to take this title that can be seen to infer a higher hierarchal importance than other team members. Despite this problem, we trudged on. Facing challenges of communication after splitting into 2 teams to address seperate problems,  challenges of time management with too long spent idly discussing, and challanges of bad organisation in test runs. Despite all this, when the time came we managed to demonstrate an improvement on the original process! For me this showed that the tools of six sigma can be very affected, even in situation where many challenges are faced and the process of improvement does not run smoothly. This exercise also made it apparent that the socio-emotional links within the team are crucial. Solving these psychological problems of team integration and communication would have given a vastly improved results.

Moral of this story for me: People. People are vital to any process. Ensuring an environment in which socio-emotional barriers to an improvement process are minised will greatly increase its chances of success.

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