How to Solve Your Problems With Lean Six Sigma (Free DMAIC Checklist)

lean six sigma

Elisabeth Swan is the co-author of “The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit” and co-host of “The Just-in-Time Cafe Podcast.” She’s been a process improvement consultant, speaker, and innovator for over 30 years. She’s the Chief Learning Experience Officer for GoLeanSixSigma.com, a former cast member of ImprovBoston, and – if asked – may still be able to ride a unicycle.

Surgeon Atul Gawande made headlines when he told the world that a simple checklist could drastically reduce unnecessary deaths in The Checklist Manifesto.

Yet, checklists conjure images of forklift drivers on loading docks with clipboards counting boxes. How could they transform healthcare?

He has… produced a 90-second checklist which reduced deaths and complications by more than one-third in eight hospitals around the world – at virtually no cost and for almost any operation.” – James Clarke, reviewing The Checklist Manifesto, Ulster Med J. 2011 Jan; 80(1): 54.

Aviation was transformed decades earlier when management and engineers at Boeing Corporation created the pre-flight checklist after the 1935 crash of the prototype Boeing B-17 at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. Checklists have become so essential to the airline industry that most crashes can be traced to the misuse or failure to complete a checklist.

A New York Times reviewer noted, “no matter how expert you may be, well-designed checklists can improve outcomes”. Since the purpose of process improvement is improving outcomes, Lean Six Sigma and checklists are natural companions.

To prove that, this Process Street blog post will show the relationship between checklists and lean six sigma, and provide you with a free DMAIC Improvement Project Tollgate Checklist that you can use right now.

Use the links below to jump to that section of the post:

Or, if you just want the checklist, check it out below!

Let’s get started.

Lean Six Sigma and the role of problem-solving

For those unfamiliar with Lean Six Sigma and process improvement, it is a structured approach for organizations to scrutinize how things are done, poke at data and processes to uncover waste and then cut out things like extra forms, out-dated approvals and other time-wasting steps.

It’s a customer-focused, 5-step problem-solving model that engages entire workforces to constantly seek a better way of doing things.

Proof of Lean Six Sigma’s influence is evident in today’s hiring practices. A poll by GoLeanSixSigma highlights that hiring managers prefer a person who is “Green Belt Certified” – having substantial Lean Six Sigma skills – by an almost 80% margin. In an interview with the former head of Twitter, problem-solving emerged as the top skill sought by today’s most influential hiring managers.

lean six sigma - qualification
Hiring Managers: If you had to choose between two similarly qualified candidates (work experience and education) except one candidate had a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and the other didn’t, who would you prefer to hire?

In other words, problem-solving (especially via Lean Six Sigma) is an absolutely vital skill.

Lean Six Sigma & the checklist

If problem-solving is a must-have skill and checklists are key to good outcomes, then combining the two makes sense.

DMAIC – Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve & Control – is the 5-Step model for Lean Six Sigma and there’s a set of required tollgates at the end of each phase. These tollgates outline what has to be done in order to move the problem-solving process forward.

Using the tollgates as an outline, we created a dynamic Process Street template that you can use for free and run checklists from to track your progress!

Introduction phase

Before you can start solving problems, you need a problem to solve.

Picking a process issue – and finding someone in leadership to support you – are two required tasks in this first tollgate. Scoping the project is important (bigger than a “just-do-it” and smaller than “solving world hunger”) but even more critical is finding a Sponsor.

Finding a Sponsor

In a poll asking Lean Six Sigma practitioners what they considered the biggest obstacle to process improvement success, “Getting Leadership Support” accounted for almost a third.

lean six sigma obstacles

When we coach team leads who tell us they can’t find someone to back their project, we let them know, “No Sponsor, no project”. If nobody in charge has any skin in the game, there’s no point in attempting the process fix. Find a different project that leadership supports.

One thing that helps when searching for leadership backing is being able to explain what Lean Six Sigma is and why it makes a difference. Since the checklist template is dynamic we inserted a video in the Define Phase within the checklist item, “Enlist a Project Champion/Sponsor who will support you and the project”. The team lead can share the video with managers or directors who they consider Sponsor candidates.

lean six sigma dmaic checklist - project champion
Check out the DMAIC Improvement Project Tollgate Checklist to see this in action!

There’s also a Project Selection Guide Template embedded in the checklist so users can take a project idea and put it through a few screening questions. Is it a repeating problem? Is there a way to measure it? The checklist serves as a reminder, a source of templates, supporting videos and other just-in-time guidance.

Define phase

The next set of tollgate tasks cover the Define Phase of DMAIC. This is where problem-solvers clarify the problem, the process impacted and customers of the process.

There is a journey of discovery during this phase as everyone agrees on the issue to solve. One of the big challenges is the tendency of ambitious team leads—or equally ambitious Sponsors—to try to “shoot the moon.”

Shooting the moon

They might want to reduce cycle time, reduce defects, improve margins, and increase customer satisfaction all by next Tuesday. But a project that focuses on everything accomplishes nothing. It’s okay to measure the cost reduction that results from reducing defects. But pick one of those to be the goal. Success is more possible if you focus on one goal at a time.

It takes practice and discipline to develop a manageable goal statement. Another moon shot is aiming for perfection out of the starting gate. When we see a goal statement that claims the team will, “reduce defects from 25% to 0%” then we know there is a sizable risk of failure and disappointment.

That’s why the Define Phase of the checklist includes a Goal Builder Template along with a blog providing tips on how to create well-crafted goal statements.

lean six sigma dmaic checklist - goal statement
Check out the DMAIC Improvement Project Tollgate Checklist to see this in full!

Measure phase

The primary focus of the Measure Phase is to baseline the process. If you’re trying to reduce defects, you need to know how you’re doing at that now. What’s your track record? You need to know the baseline of the process in order to measure whether or not you made a difference with your improvement when you get to the Improve Phase.

You need to know the gap, so you can close the gap.

The data’s in the system, somewhere…

One of the issues we run into in this phase is problem solvers assuming that data is sitting in a system somewhere waiting to be accessed. If they simply run a report, they’ll have the baseline. Check that off the list. But that rarely goes according to plan.

Maybe there’s system data, but was it entered with care? Is it reliable? We’ve seen teams struggle to use data that didn’t make sense. They could access cycle time data, but it didn’t take into account that the workday ended at 5:00. I had another team looking at why healthcare invoices had to be manually adjusted. They looked up the defect codes and the biggest category was “Other”. System data existed, but it was useless.

Most of the time, it helps to collect some data manually. In order to think through your approach, you need a Data Collection Plan. That involves listing the data you want and considering things like stratification factors—the “who, what, when, where” of data. If you’re looking at defects, should you collect data on defects by product? Defects by the fields on a form? Defects by customer type?

Within the task: “Develop a Data Collection Plan with Operational Definitions and create Check Sheets as Needed”, we’ve embedded a template (The Data Collection Plan) and a video to guide the process.

You’ll learn a lot by collecting the data firsthand, so if the perfect data set is not magically sitting in the system, it helps to have a plan.

Analyze phase

Analyze is the crux of the DMAIC method. This is where learners drill down and discover the root cause of the process problem they’ve been chasing. Once you do that, you can solve the problem for good.

But if you have not determined the root cause then you might be solving a “symptom,” putting a bandaid on the problem or implementing a change based on a hunch. All of this means there’s a high likelihood the problem will remain and the efforts will have been in vain.

Finding the smoking gun

If you’ve always been told, “don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution,” that’s an encouragement to jump right past this step into the fun of solutions. I’ve seen teams go with their assumptions regardless of what the data says or the process analysis reveals. I’ve seen Sponsors who tell teams what solutions they want to be implemented right from the get-go.

How do you stick with analysis long enough to find the smoking gun? The trick is to keep collecting the clues in the Cause & Effect Diagram, aka The “Fishbone Diagram”. It’s an aptly named tool, popularized by Dr. Ishikawa, which resembles a fish skeleton. Its construction allows teams to develop root cause theories around a problem as they build their knowledge of the process.

Each time they collect data, interview process participants on a Gemba Walk or map the process steps, they uncover potential reasons for defects. Making the most of the Fishbone Diagram is key but, during a poll, users reported where they fell short.

lean six sigma fishbone diagram

Solutions masquerading as problems

Over a third of respondents reported the issues of “listing solutions” on the Fishbone instead of causes. What we hear are phrases like, “the root cause is a lack of training”.

The problem with “lack of” anything is that it’s a sneaky way of putting a solution on the Fishbone.

The question is, “what is the training addressing?” Is it lack of user knowledge? If that’s the problem, could it be solved with helpful visuals, a simpler process? There are a lot of ways to address user knowledge before jumping to more employee training.

This is when you want to behave like the persistent detective – think Columbo, the classic 70’s TV icon. Every question helps you accumulate clues. People working through the process may have the answer without knowing it. The trick is to keep looking upstream until you find potential culprits. Dig past the symptoms.

To help with this phase, the checklist includes both a Fishbone Diagram Template as well as a video on how to get the most out of the Fishbone.

Improve phase

The Improve Phase is a long-anticipated step in the journey. It’s the step teams generally want to jump to from the start. Testing countermeasures, piloting solutions, watching the problem disappear, that’s the fun of process improvement. If you’ve done a proper job of Define, Measure, and Analyze, this phase falls nicely into place.

The ripple effect

The catch? Unintended consequences.

If you toss a stone into a lake you can see the ripples flow out from the center. The same principle holds true for process change. If you remove a step, change a form, skip an approval, will things fall apart? For that, we look to the Failure Modes & Effects Analysis or FMEA for short.

It’s a methodical way of assessing the potential for things to go wrong. It Involves deciding the potential severity and frequency of future problems and then mistake-proofing the process to prevent them. The technique originated at NASA since they couldn’t risk trial and error when sending men to the moon. By thinking through the risks of change they developed the kind of contingency plans you saw on display in movies like Apollo 13.

That’s why there’s an FMEA Template and a video on how to use it tucked into the main checklist from this post.

It’s okay to make changes. It’s simply key to think through the impact of those changes on other parts of the business.

Control phase

Process Improvement can happen quickly and have a dramatic impact, but it’s critical to “stick the landing.” The Control Phase exists to see the improvement through to stability.

If teams move on and everyone takes their eyes off the ball, things may start to slip. What they need is the ability to continuously see the performance of the new process.

Sticking the landing

Have you ever tried to watch a game without a scoreboard? How would you know who was winning? Or how much time was left?

It’s the same with process work.

How does your team know how they’re doing? How do you stay aware of how the new process is performing?

By making the data visible.

Keeping an eye on Process Performance can be done with a single metric — you need to focus on one thing. If the goal was to reduce defects, then the single metric would be tracking the daily percentage of defects. A great way to measure success is with a Control Chart.

Control Charts are time charts. You might know them as Line Charts or Run Charts. They include a measure of variation so they are often referred to as “Run Charts that went to college”. They can be created in Excel, but they can also be drawn by hand.

Teams often set up whiteboards in the shared workspace to track things like defects. People can rotate responsibility for updating the chart. If people can see the measure and are responsible for it—they pay attention to it. What gets measured gets managed.

The Control Chart Template is embedded in the checklist for the Control Phase.

Checklists and Lean Six Sigma

Process Improvement is a mainstay of Operational Excellence and checklists are simple but effective ways to make sure you get the outcomes you want. The following quote comes from the interim CEO/President of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME).

I am a big fan of checklists for ensuring quality at the source. They serve an important purpose in reminding us of all that’s needed in a particular process or project. Without checklists, we risk missing or overlooking something by mistake.

Checklists work best when ticking off items as they are completed, not en masse once the entire project is done. The key point is to use and follow them, not “pencil-whip” them from memory after the fact. While not foolproof, checklists can help us cover the details and result in more thorough, successful improvement efforts.” – Jerry Wright, President, AME

Checklists have transformed healthcare, aviation, and countless other industries. Run this Process Street DMAIC Tollgate Checklist and make sure your next improvement effort gets great results.

Use Process Street to reduce error

Process Street is a powerful piece of workflow software that lets you crush the human error in your organization.

By creating process templates (like the free DMAIC checklist in this post) you can give your whole team a central location for them to see what they have to do, and how exactly they should do it.

No more confusion, no more errors.

Take advantage of our powerful feature set to create superpowered checklists, including:

Check out our intro webinar to see the app in action!

Stop leaving the success of your processes up to chance. Get started with a free trial of Process Street today!

How do you manage quality control in your business? Let us know in the comments!

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Ben Mulholland

Ben Mulholland is an Editor at Process Street, and winds down with a casual article or two on Mulholland Writing. Find him on Twitter here.


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