Deploying Flowcharts to Understand Six Sigma Methodology

“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”H. James Harrington

Devised and initiated in 1986, Six Sigma Methodology is an approach driven by data, and aimed at enhancing the quality of services and products by purging defects from a process. The aim of companies using the Six Sigma Methodology is for their products to be 99.99966% defect free and accurate. By this standard, the aim for companies must be to bring down manufacturing defects to less than 3.4 per million units. With so many competitors today, it makes sense for businesses to use every tool possible that will enable the reduction of errors that cause defects, and put in place new methods post finding solutions to the errors. Six Sigma’s efficacy lies in its ability to isolate, examine, and improve repetitive operations, which are usually the highest in any organization. Since this methodology is a niche area, explaining it to those who do not specialize in it can prove challenging, and hence deploying flowcharts to explain could help to break down the barriers between the Six Sigma specialists and others, including top management.

It is necessary for companies to follow five main steps if they are to achieve their goal of excellence. These five steps can easily be explained even to a ‘lay’ person by deploying flowcharts. To start with defining the problem to be rooted out is important – this should be related to matching the requirements of customers. The next step would be to measure the performance of the existing process, and analyze the root causes of the defects and inadequacies. The main focus of the Six Sigma Methodology is addressing the root cause of problems, not only to improve performance but to prevent further occurrences of them. Lastly, the methodology seeks to monitor and keep the enhanced process under control to ensure consistent optimal performance.

Six Sigma process steps can easily be defined and depicted visually by deploying flowcharts, which are also easily modified and can be made shareable with the Six Sigma champions and others within the organization that may be affected by the process. Using flowcharts allows the users to explain and define the paths, any roadblocks, and the possible decisions. Deploying flowcharts allows those working on improving the process, to use quantitative measurements such as value, resources, yields, time, and statistical distributions present within the process.

The Six Sigma process map (one type of the many different types of flowcharts) uses mathematical terminology to aid a number of statistical analyses. Adding numerical descriptions and attributes that can be quantified would enable anyone to view the process exactly as it should be. In addition, by deploying a process map flowchart, allows the user to describe a practical situation in arithmetical terms in order to develop a numerical solutions, which can then be applied to the real world environment.

As users of flowcharts know, this tool uses symbols / boxes to capture details. Before trying to perfect the Six Sigma process map, it would be necessary to put in all the steps, identify the role and purpose of each, and find a way to connect all the steps in a manner that is reflective of the current process within the organization. Once this is done, the objective of each point in the map must be precisely and quantitatively defined – this is important to ensure the accuracy of the process model. The great part of the process map flowchart is that a user can include several prompts for each of the nodes and the multitude of definitions within the ‘map’. The flowchart can help to visually depict the average time required to complete a part of the process, as also any possible variations in the timelines.

The other important part of any process is the number of resources required for the completion of a process. A process flowchart will clearly and visually depict required natural, human, and financial resources, and also help to identify the numbers, names, and types of resources in order to monitor their utilization. Deploying flowcharts to depict and understand the Six Sigma Methodology entails being able to gauge whether a process step adds value to the process and organization or whether a step adds no value and hence should be made redundant. Since six sigma focuses on all round quality improvement, monitoring costs of the resources used is also an important part. Costs would include direct ones such as personnel deployed, facilities, materials required, and some indirect costs which usually can come as a surprise, and it would be best to remain aware of them – deploying flowcharts places every element of a process in a visually presentable manner.

A swim lane flowchart could also prove highly useful as a visualization technique to depict the Six Sigma Methodology and the processes brought under the wing of improvement. A swim lane allows cross functional processes to be put together in different lanes, allowing for the clearly visualization of the path each process step would follow. Moving from left to right, it can clearly depict the use of six sigma tools as the process moves from function to function, right from the beginning. This is necessary for all the people involved in optimizing a process through the elimination of defects – without understanding the process, improvements would not be possible. A flowchart – process map – will graphically display each step of the process making it a lot easier and quicker to grasp.

Six Sigma Methodology and champions deploy process maps to visually recreate the processes. The first is a process flowchart depicting a sequence of activities with decision points through the process. The next is a deployment flowchart depicting the roles and responsibilities of individuals and functions, and depict a clear division of these responsibilities and also where the groups need to work together to ensure the successful completion of a process. The third type is an alternate path flowchart which is a step by step flowchart, providing ‘alternate’ paths for most of the process steps – different to the deployment and process flowcharts.

Flowchart / process maps when deployed sensibly can immensely benefit a company, especially in the realm of removing waste and deficiencies from the operations in a company. Any abstract concepts in a visual manner make it easier to grasp the process, and instead of going through cumbersome documents to gain an understanding. The visualization of a process also makes it simpler to pinpoint defects and portions of the process that are non-value adding. With enhanced quality, a company would be better equipped to deliver top quality products and services. These process flowcharts can be stored for future reference and training purposes.

A company may deploy the Six Sigma Methodology with a single project or within a single department. With time and success of the single project, it can be deployed throughout the entire company, which in turn can lead to sustainable success.  As processes improve, the organization builds confidence and trust not just within employees, but also within the customer base. 

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