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Common Questions About the DMAIC Cycle for Improvement

Posted by Jeff Roussel

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May 17, 2021 12:34:12 PM

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The DMAIC cycle is often called Six Sigma’s roadmap to improvement. It is one of the core tools of the methodology, but organizations also use it as a standalone improvement technique. We have clients in almost every industry, from healthcare to construction, who have achieved quantifiable impact against core business metrics by using the DMAIC approach. 

Here are some of the questions we get asked about the DMAIC cycle most often.


What is the DMAIC Cycle?

DMAIC is an acronym for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. (It’s pronounced də-MAY-ick.) It is a data-driven technique used to structure, control, and document business process improvement.

Define: This first step involves creating a precise definition of the business problem and the scope of the planned improvements. The expected results are documented, and, in some cases, a formal charter for the improvement plan is created. Some teams find it helpful to note what is out of scope for the project.

Measure: During this phase, the team decides which outputs will be measured and how frequently. A baseline measurement is captured along with the plan for future measurements. Control charts are commonly introduced as part of this step. Without a method for objective measurement, it is impossible to prove the impact of improvement, so this is a critical juncture in the project.

Analyze: The analysis step involves looking for the root cause of the business issue. Often the Six Sigma techniques of the 5 Whys and process mapping are utilized. While it is natural to jump to conclusions and start implementing solutions right away, those practiced at DMAIC resist that urge and thoughtfully pursue the underlying causes of process failures before making any changes.

Improve: Once the root cause is identified, potential improvements are discussed and evaluated. Associated risks are documented, and risk mitigation plans are put into place. The agreed-upon process enhancements are implemented.

Control: The final phase is about ensuring lasting improvement by putting Standard Work in place and implementing the measurement plan. If this step is skipped, improvements tend to be short-lived, and potential gains are not realized.

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How was the DMAIC Cycle invented?

The roots of DMAIC come from the PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) cycle, a method for learning and improvement also referred to as the “Shewhart Cycle,” developed by Walter Shewhart, the statistician. He developed statistical process control at Bell Laboratories during the 1930s. Dr. W. Edwards Deming successfully applied the concept of PDSA during the 1950s, and PDSA became known as the “Deming Wheel.” After Deming, GE, and others evolved PDSA into DMAIC to guide quality projects to reduce defects. Today, many organizations use PDSA for simple tasks and DMAIC for more complex improvements.

Who uses DMAIC?

As we mentioned, DMAIC is widely used by most organizations that practice the Six Sigma methodology. However, it is a valuable tool that can be used by any organization seeking to continuously improve processes and get higher quality, more predictable results. It is popular in manufacturing, of course, but is also used in healthcare, higher education, construction, consulting, software development, logistics, retail, and professional services.

What are some common pitfalls of the approach?

The most common mistake is falling for the temptation to jump right to the Improve stage without taking the time to define the problem, get baseline measurements, and dig into the root cause(s). Organizations that see outstanding results from the technique are very disciplined at sticking with the cadence and following each step in order.

Another common error is the failure to implement the controls necessary to sustain improvement. Early wins are great, but the impact of improvement should stand the test of time until a new improvement cycle is started to get even closer to perfection.

The third mistake we see often is the failure to involve process operators in the DMAIC project. While managers and other subject matter experts can be beneficial, it is the people closest to the work who best understand the problems and are therefore well-positioned to offer solutions.

When should DMAIC be used?

Some improvements can be made without a complete DMAIC cycle if the root cause is apparent and the correct change is evident. For other, more complex problems with multiple solutions or unclear reasons, an entire cycle is needed. DMAIC is also very useful when numerous functional areas are involved in a process or if subject matter expertise is required. Often, DMAIC is deployed when previous improvement efforts have failed to produce the expected results or when special cause process variation is suspected.

How can I get the most out of the technique?

The best practice is to follow the approach step-by-step and to involve the people who run the processes in the improvement effort. Collaboration is key to finding the underlying issues and getting buy-in for the agreed-upon changes. Documentation is also essential. Continuous improvement software is beneficial for creating a central location for documents and ensuring that the project moves forward smoothly. 

It is also a good idea to review your database to access past DMAIC projects that have been applied to similar processes. You may find some valuable lessons that have already been learned. Finally, remember that DMAIC is a process improvement technique, not a tool for employee performance evaluation.

DMAIC is popular because it works. Our clients have used it to reduce waste, improve customer satisfaction, eliminate defects, and reduce process times. It’s a great way to bring structure to your next continuous improvement project.

Topics: Six Sigma, Improvement Process, DMAIC

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