When should DMAIC be your go-to problem-solving tool?

Most CI practitioners with some knowledge of Six Sigma will know that the basic DMAIC road map forms the backbone of any process improvement initiative. The steps make sense, they are easy to understand and they are logical in their sequence. They allow your teams to adequately scope a problem, measure the current performance, analyze the root causes of problems and inefficiency, test and verify improvement recommendations, and then implement changes for sustainability in the long term. But how do you know when to use such a structured problem-solving method for a particular process?

DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) is a process unto itself that can be – and should be – improved in every organization that uses Six Sigma as a critical component of continuous improvement and quality initiatives. The tenets of DMAIC provide context for executing continuous improvement and are not meant to be rigid or used exactly the same way each time. There are many tools and deliverables that fall under the umbrella of DMAIC, and not every one of them is used in every single project.

Nuances that are found in every company’s culture influence how Six Sigma ‒ and DMAIC in particular ‒ is executed. For example, both financial services and manufacturing companies may have processes that need to be improved, yet a particular tool may be more appropriate in one environment than in the other. Also, not all service organizations are the same in that they all have their own history and philosophy about how change should occur.


What is true for all organizations is that the DMAIC process will evolve as a company becomes more sophisticated in applying the methodology, and more knowledgeable about what does and does not work in its own environment. Thus, the DMAIC process itself can be improved by capturing and sharing lessons learned and best practices from each initiative, to be passed on to future initiatives. Formalizing the capture of lessons learned and best practices and integrating them into a company’s DMAIC documentation and training, is a tremendous value-added step for any continuous improvement programme.


When to use DMAIC

When improving a current process, if the problem is complex or the risks are high, DMAIC should be the go-to method. Its discipline and structure prevent teams from skipping crucial steps and increase the chances of a successful project. So if you want to improve your conversions and yields, or eliminate a bottleneck here and there, then a dose of DMAIC is probably just what you need.

If the risks are low and there is an obvious solution, some of the DMAIC steps may be skipped, but only if:

  • Reliable data shows this is the best solution for your problem
  • Possible unintended outcomes have been identified and mitigation plans have been developed
  • There’s buy-in from the process owner

If the obvious solution can’t be proved with trustworthy data, a full-scale DMAIC project should be launched.

There are two approaches to implementing DMAIC:

  • The first is the team approach in which individuals who are skilled in the tools and method, such as quality or process improvement specialists, lead a team. The team members work on the project part-time while still taking care of their everyday duties. The specialist team leader might be assigned to several projects simultaneously, which are usually long-term projects that take several months to complete.
  • The second tactic involves the kaizen method, an intense progression through the DMAIC process typically completed within a week. Prep work is completed by the quality or process improvement specialist, and is centered on the Define and Measure phases. The rest of the phases are completed by a team of individuals who have been pulled from their regular duties for the duration of the kaizen event.

In most cases, the changes are piloted during the event, and full-scale implementation is completed after the event. It is crucial that the impact of these changes ‒ whether they’re desired or not ‒ is closely monitored. The advantage of this approach is the ability to make rapid changes.

The real strength of the DMAIC steps is the Control step. Too often, teams manage to improve the process and get the results, but then struggle to implement the improved process smoothly. There’s pressure to move on, time isn’t spent on ensuring a smooth transition and the buy-in for full implementation just isn’t quite there. The result is that sustaining the improvement realised in the Improve step becomes difficult.

The purpose of the Control step is to ensure a successful implementation of the team’s recommendation so that long-term success will be attained. The new and improved process must be captured on a flowchart and these new methods will become the new standard operating procedures. Results will continue to be tracked so that any ‘drift’ back to previous results can be monitored and addressed in a proactive manner. The Control step is about the transfer of responsibilities and establishing plans for long-term process control.

It’s important to realize that DMAIC isn’t an implementation method for best practices; it’s a method to discover best practices. Lastly, DMAIC is a data-driven, customer-focused, structured problem-solving framework that builds on learning from previous phases to arrive at permanent solutions for difficult problems. Define will tell your team what to measure. Measure will tell your team what to analyze. Analyze will tell your team what to improve. And improve will them what to control.


Would you like to add more useful tools to your problem-solving kit? Download the Strategic problem solving for executives how-to guide to find out how to eliminate problems at the core, and create opportunities for growth and continuous improvement.