What Does Six Sigma Look Like in a Connected Worker World?

six sigma

Six Sigma is one of the key frameworks for process improvement, a system for eliminating defects. The goal is to streamline quality control in manufacturing or business processes, making a process 99.99996 percent defect-free or producing 3.4 defects or less per million actions or units.

Historically, companies implemented Six Sigma by manual means – paper binders, Excel spreadsheets, photocopied procedures and paper-based checklists. Now that digital technology has enabled a world where work is becoming increasingly connected, what does Six Sigma look like, particularly through the lens of the common DMAIC approach to Six Sigma deployment?

For reference, the DMAIC framework is:

  • (D)efine the problem
  • (M)easure process performance
  • (A)nalyze the process to determine root causes of defects
  • (I)mprove process performance by addressing and eliminating the root causes
  • (C)ontrol the improved process and future process performance

Let’s break these down one by one to see how they can be applied with the connected worker in mind, and to make standard operating procedures (SOPs) or processes easier to deploy, more successful and longer lasting.

Define the problem

Before anything else, you need to understand where process boundaries are and what the customer – internal or external – requires from the process. In traditional paper-based environments, procedures get out of sync and teams end up too far removed from what previously established processes are meant to accomplish. Exacerbated by updates that need to be done manually, SOPs change between different workers, shifts and facilities. 

Additionally, not everyone is on the same page and may not have access to the data required to reveal particular problems.

With connected worker technology, frontline employees have access to the most up-to-date procedures, across relevant teams and sites.

And because SOPs are accessed through a mobile device, with on-the-spot training if needed, change management is minimal. Back office teams can also leverage essential data about the execution of key processes and jobs. Connected worker technology allows teams to not only capture data in real-time, but to produce insights and feed those insights back into work – driving continuous quality improvement. 

Measure process performance

According to the Master of Project Academy, there are five key deliverables for the measure phase of DMAIC:

  • Determining how the data will be collected
  • Creating an operational worksheet
  • Creating a data collection plan
  • Conducting a measurement system analysis (MSA)
  • Baselining process data

Traditionally, Six Sigma is entirely a paper-based or spreadsheet-driven exercise involving a lot of discussion. Connected worker technology, by default, takes care of all these steps. When a connected worker solution is deployed, it should automatically collect process data; the question of how information will be gathered isn’t an issue.

An operational worksheet is the manual record that documents each variable you want to measure. Connected worker technology also addresses this as part of deployment and implementation; you need to define what you will measure when you implement the solution. The planning and implementation of this measurement are essentially one step. 

The system also takes care of the next step: creating a data collection plan. A connected worker solution can be configured for what information you will store, but essentially, you’ll have all process information in the system by default. 

An MSA – the next step – also is not needed, as the software is calibrated to measure a process consistently and accurately. You can rely on the data you are collecting by default, unless some part of the process involves unbounded or unvalidated data entry. Here, a plan wouldn’t make a difference, but perhaps training or more explicit parameters for data input would. 

Finally, connected worker technology offers data baselines by default. You just need to verify that the “process system” you are deploying is collecting what you want starting at first measurement.

Analyze the process to determine root causes

In traditional process improvement, teams may use the five “whys,” like Six Sigma Daily suggests. Another approach might be a fishbone or Ishikawa diagram to identify and discuss all the possible causes for an effect or problem.

In a connected worker environment, the process essentially reveals what is wrong through data, which is consistent with Six Sigma.

If the team sees significant delays in the setup of a machine, they know where to look. The issue could be availability of supplies, inaccurate procedures, training, or even the quality or age of the machine. With this area pinpointed, a cross-functional team can identify the root cause almost immediately. 

The same would be true of data which shows that workers consistently execute, say, step four before step three. An engaged, data-driven team will be able to find this to be the source of the problem much faster and easier than in a non-digital environment, where discussions about delays or product quality can distract you from uncovering the real root cause of an issue.  

Improve process performance by addressing and eliminating root causes

Going back to our machine setup example: Tackling this problem through manual methods can end up being time-consuming and error-prone. A team may ask a process engineer to do a time and motion study to determine which steps are taking the most time. Operational leaders may then need to get the team together to determine what is needed to shorten that time. If it’s determined that training is the issue, they might then have to ask a training department to develop a course. Production would then likely need to stop for a period of time and involve possibly flying people in from various plants to instruct them on how to carry out the procedure correctly. The instruction manual or SOP would need to be updated by a tech writer and distributed to all impacted facilities.

By contrast, a process improvement team in a connected worker environment can identify the training gap through data, update the procedure, add a video to the procedure to demonstrate the correct behavior, and get instant approval to send it out to all locations, seamlessly updating every worker in a fraction of the time. 

Consistent with Six Sigma, connected worker technology collects data before and after the improvement was made.

Improvements can be validated within the connected worker platform’s analytics, or the data can be sent to statistical analysis tools to ensure that the change was indeed a real improvement. Connected worker technology is a continuous time and motion study of the work being performed.

Control the improved process and future process performance

In this last step of DMAIC, the goal is to permanently improve the process by adding some control to it. In food manufacturing, for example, a power button has to be locked before someone can access a chopping blade to clean or replace it. In Japan, this type of “mistake proofing” is known as poka yoke. Poka yoke came out of the Toyota Production System and was adopted by Six Sigma and Lean, and is now a widely accepted concept in manufacturing.

Poka yoke in a manual setting can really only be done through physical means or through training teams for a new procedure. In a connected worker environment, software can easily add poka yoke steps in a procedure; connected worker software can require you to complete a specific step or task before you are given the next step in the procedure. An example might be that you need to enter the serial number of a machine before being given a specific instruction, or you must enter an error condition from a machine to then get the correct instruction. 

It’s worth noting that software-led poka yoke could be bypassed with physical machines, so procedures where safety is a consideration would ideally have both physical control and software-driven poka yoke steps.

Conclusion

The DMAIC framework is only one Six Sigma technique, but it is a particularly useful lens through which to demonstrate how a Six Sigma work environment changes with modern means to orchestrate work. In many ways, connected worker technology is informed by Six Sigma and other continuous improvement and quality approaches, resulting in an ideal way for companies that utilize Six Sigma to move toward the next level of performance. Six Sigma, at its core, is about consistency and predictability. A connected worker environment ensures consistency and predictability, while avoiding the loss of quality, operational performance or breakdowns in more manual environments. With connected work, companies can lock in, accelerate and maximize the long-term gains driven by a Six Sigma approach. 

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