Six Sigma Certification

Certification projects are used to demonstrate a grasp of the Six Sigma training through application in real-life situations.  From project selection through closure the trainee completes the full gamut of project requirements while falling back to the trainer for guidance.  As with the classroom each organization can decide how extensive the certification needs to be through the number of projects.  Unlike the training though, the projects can actually generate a return for the organization provided they are properly focused.

In regards to the scope of the certification process, I have seen requirements from 1 to 4 projects to complete the course of training under the guidance of previously certified personnel.  Four seems a bit extensive to me, but again it is a matter of choice for the organization.  Most programs seem to have settled on one or two. For example, the American Society of Quality has settled on one project as the requirement for certification.

Independent of the number of projects each DMAIC process must complete and demonstrate an understanding of the basic concepts for each step.  Those steps are Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control.  In later articles I can step through the details for each step and explain any common pitfalls.  For now I will give a quick overview of each and lessons to which managers and trainees should pay closer attention.

Perhaps the most difficult step in executing each project is the Define step.  Here the trainer, trainee, and organization interact to decide on which project to work.  There are many stakeholders in every organization and any number of opportunities. Often the project will be directed to an area of the business that requires immediate attention or promises significant returns.  Developing the skills needed to work through the ‘politics’ of the selection process with all of the stakeholders is perhaps one of the most difficult lessons to learn and where the trainer can provide significant guidance.

Not only is it necessary to get stakeholders to agree on which issue to work on, but also the problem definition is key to ensure project success once it is approved.  Stating something like “Customers aren’t happy with our product” can result in minimal improvements.  Therefore, it is necessary to ensure the problem is defined in a measurable way.  The best way to avoid garbage in/garbage out at this stage is to focus the project on a measurable variable (the Y) that the stakeholders hold important.

The variables will determine the detailed focus of the project, but they will also directly affect the scope or size of the project.  In addition the scope of the project must be controlled.  Too large a project may result in frustration for the organization and the trainee.  Too small a project provides minimal impact and does not ensure that personnel are learning what they need in order to work independently in the future.  So working with the stakeholders and champions within the organization to determine the project must entail not only the issue to be addressed; but also the anticipated time frame, scope, and variables.

The interim steps Measure, Analyze, and Improve are the technical steps of the projects used to set a baseline, determine relationships, experiment, and develop a solution using the statistical tool set.  The training for this part of the certification project(s) typically involves:  1) Monitoring the proper use of the statistical tools to ensure that they are not being inappropriately applied; 2) Ensuring the project is on track and delivering the anticipated results; and 3) Developing the project management abilities that will be utilized when the new belt is own their own.

There are three significant issues that are most often seen in this center mass of a project.  One is the misapplication of statistical tools.  If the data being utilized is non-normal, for example, you cannot apply the statistical tools for normal data. (Yes, there are ways to transform data in order to utilize these tools; however, in my experience it is more often prudent to forego the extra time needed in order to focus the attack against the original problem – which is not the data.)

The second major issue is that often the measurement devices that have been historically in use are not capable of providing data that is reliable.  There are ways to work through the issue, but the results of the project will not be as significant if the root issue of an inappropriate measuring device is not addressed.

The third significant issue often seen is that the expected payback is not as significant as anticipated in the define stage.  This is often due to the need for greater investment (design changes, improved tooling), but may also be as a result of finding the problem measurement is being used as a manner of dealing with a larger issue.  For example, a sorting operation put in place because the increased labor was less than the increased price of a tighter tolerance part.

Each of these three issues can result in an incomplete or significantly delayed project.  However, incomplete projects are not failures.  Indeed, they should be used as significant lessons for management to understand and document the choices they have (or are) making in the course of business.  The decision may be to not repair the past, but to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated in the future.  Then it becomes management’s responsibility (perhaps with the assistance of a design Blackbelt) to ensure proper application of the lessons moving forward.

The last step Control is the other step with Define which organizations, especially those new to Six Sigma? often struggle.  Control is all about how to ensure that the realized improvement will remain in place.  Often when a project owner or personnel close to a process move on to a new assignment the key relationships can be lost.  Or an improvement for another project may impact the first, or may not consider the impact to it, and result in a loss of improvements previously attained (See the above example of a sorting process implemented to control cost).  Putting the necessary controls in place and documenting the relationships is key to ensuring that as additional personnel are qualified and projects are completed nothing is lost or at a minimum the proper tradeoffs are considered.  In addition, the previous projects can be used as teaching tools for the classroom and guidance for new projects.

The two step process for certification: Classroom and Project is the most common method utilized.  They can be presented and combined in a number of ways. The effort the organization is willing to expend on projects will see immediate benefits as those projects are implemented in the organization.  The project quantity is not as important as ensuring the pitfalls and areas of concern are properly addressed and understood by the trainee.  As I stated previously, in the end the process is about ensuring the tools are understood and that projects can be completed to help the organization achieve improved results.  The more people properly trained and working on projects, the better the results that can be obtained.

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