Six Sigma and automation: a beginner’s guide



Your business is built on processes. Without them, nothing happens. Some will be part of major workflows, some will simply be to keep the business ticking over. Some you’ll want to automate, and others you’ll want to update.

Part of good business hygiene, then, is ensuring your processes are optimised and high-quality. Enter Six Sigma.

But what is Six Sigma, and how does it impact your processes and your automation? Here’s a beginner’s guide to Six Sigma and automation.


What is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma is the name for a set of management techniques that aim to improve manufacturing and business processes. It does this by focusing on the quality and consistency of the process in question — reducing the chance for faults and errors to happen.

In terms of Six Sigma and automation, the emphasis lies on its impact on the quality of business processes specifically.

The core beliefs behind Six Sigma

  1. It’s vitally important to put continuous effort into process improvement.
  2. Business processes have quantifiable characteristics — elements that can be measured and analysed to aid in process improvement and control.
  3. Continuous improvement in process quality requires commitment from everyone involved, particularly higher-level leaders.

In short, Six Sigma focuses on improving quality by eliminating defects and reducing process variation. (That is, how often results vary from the same process.)


Six Sigma methodologies

There are two methodologies under the Six Sigma umbrella: DMADV and DMAIC. Both are useful when looking at Six Sigma and automation. Here’s what these methodologies mean in terms of the quality of business processes specifically.

DMADV

DMADV is the Six Sigma methodology for the creation of new processes within the business.

  • Define

Identify and outline the goals of the new process or set of processes. Consider the goals of the project, and the impact it will have on those connected to the process. (I.e., team members, customers, etc.)

In short, define what a successful process looks like.

  • Measure

You’ll need a way to measure the success of your processes. Work out which characteristics of the process will point to quality. Will it be result consistency? The frequency of a possible outcome? Etc.

  • Analyse

Analyse these goals and metrics. Are there any alternative ways of measuring or developing the process in question?

  • Design

Using what you’ve discovered from the previous steps, design your new process. Consider all the alternative options, goals, and measurements when crafting the process.

  • Verify

The final step is to make sure that the process works as expected. Carry out some test runs, check for weaknesses or defects, then fix them accordingly. Once that’s done, you have a new process.

DMAIC

DMAIC is the Six Sigma methodology geared towards improving the quality of existing processes. (Including those you made using DMADV.)

  • Define

Define what a successful process looks like.

  • Measure

Measure the current output/quality/success of the process(es) that you’re looking to improve.

  • Analyse

Study the process and the current metrics looking for improvement opportunities. What is causing the problem or defect? Are there inefficiencies involved? And so on.

  • Improve

Based on your analysis, make changes to the process that should fix the issues or improve the process in some way — be it through efficiency, scalability, etc. Measure how well the improved process performs compared to the old one.

  • Control

Six Sigma calls for continual efforts in process improvement. This comes most into play in the last step of DMAIC: control.

This step involves monitoring your process, watching for any deviations from the goal of the process, and correcting them before it becomes a big problem. If a defect occurs, run the DMAIC methodology again. Rinse and repeat until the process is at the desired level of quality.


Six Sigma and automation

With an understanding of Six Sigma, the question of how it relates to automation remains. There are, in fact, two sides to Six Sigma and automation:

  • 1. How to use automation to assist your Six Sigma practice

Two big parts of the Six Sigma methodology are testing and monitoring. Automation can prove useful for both.

You can use automation to run some of the processes you want to test and quickly see how well they perform.

You can also use automation to assist with monitoring and measurement. For example, you can set auto-alerts to notify you if an anomalous result occurs, or if a process fails. Or, you can set up automated rules to retrieve data relating to your process measurements.

  • 2. How Six Sigma impacts your automation efforts

On the flip side of the coin, practising the Six Sigma techniques can also prove beneficial to your automation efforts.

Automation cannot fix broken processes. If a process is broken, automation will either fail or provide incorrect output. But Six Sigma does help you fix those troublesome processes.

The result is that more of your processes become automatable. They’re robust and high quality, making them much easier for you to automate. Plus, with your goals and metrics defined, your automated processes are easier to measure, too.


In conclusion

Six Sigma, at its core, is a method of continuous process improvement. It requires ongoing effort to monitor the processes within your business – ensuring they are robust, free of defects, and of high quality.

In turn, this allows for much easier automation efforts. It helps you see which processes are prime for automation, and it reminds you to keep your automated processes up-to-date and well-managed.


Useful links

A guide to achieving continuous process improvement

How to map a process in 5 simple steps

10 typical reasons for business process failure


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