Choosing a Process Improvement Methodology | Lucidchart Blog
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Process engineers evaluate and develop processes to increase productivity and scale their businesses. To fulfill this role, you need a process for evaluating and improving processes. Talk about meta.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to find a methodology that works for process improvement, but you might not be sure which methodology to use when professionals throw around terms like DMAIC and TQM. Learn more about the top approaches to process improvement below and the diagrams that can assist you through every step.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma began at Motorola, became a core part of the strategy at General Electric, and has since been used widely for manufacturing and business processes. This method helps companies measure defects or inconsistencies in a process to deliver perfect products and services.

Within Six Sigma, process engineers use two sub-methodologies, DMAIC for improving existing processes and DMADV for creating new processes. The more widely used of the two, DMAIC follows these steps:

  • Define the opportunity for improvement (project goal).
  • Measure the performance of your existing process.
  • Analyze the process to find any defects and their root causes.
  • Improve the process by addressing the root causes you found.
  • Control the improved process and future process performance to correct any deviations before they result in defects.

DMADV follows similar steps, though users will look at different factors since a process does not exist yet:

  • Define the process goal, keeping in line with the overall company strategy and customer needs.
  • Measure the factors that are critical to quality (called CTQs).
  • Analyze various design and development options.
  • Design the process.
  • Verify that the design meets process goals and customer needs. Pilot the process and, if successful, implement the process.

Six Sigma relies on data and statistics to make decisions more than other methodologies. By using DMAIC and DMADV, Six Sigma organizations should see clear financial returns and strive for less than 3.4 defective features in every million opportunities, or chances for a defect.

Diagrams for Six Sigma

While Six Sigma offers strong standards on its own, it borrows from other process improvement tools to help professionals complete the DMAIC process. As you define and analyze your current process, you might use these diagrams.

Ishikawa diagram/fishbone diagram: These diagrams, also known as cause-and-effect diagrams, can help you brainstorm potential causes of a defect. Resembling a fishbone, the head of the diagram states the problem, and lines branch out into different categories of causes. The standard categories include equipment, process, people, materials, environment, and management. To see an example and create an Ishikawa diagram, take a look at our template.

fishbone diagram

SIPOC analysis diagram: You know you wanted to see another acronym. This particular acronym stands for the various pieces that define your process: Supplier, Input, Process, Output, and Customer. Many process engineers use a simple table with a column for each SIPOC column. With the Lucidchart template, you can use swimlanes to show how each of these factors interact. Open this template in your Lucidchart account now!

SIPOC diagram

Business process mapping: While the other diagrams mentioned help you analyze aspects of your process, business process maps give a detailed understanding of the entire process. Grab a Lucidchart template to get started, or learn more about business process mapping.business process map

Lean Manufacturing

As the name would suggest, the Lean methodology strives to cut costs by eliminating waste. Although it is often referred to as Lean manufacturing, Lean’s core ideas can apply to every organization and process. This method can work in tandem with Six Sigma—in fact, many organizations combine the two methodologies into Lean Six Sigma. However, Six Sigma focuses on eliminating defects for quality assurance, and Lean focuses on eliminating any waste, including process defects, for efficiency.

Someone using this method would evaluate a process’s value stream. The value stream consists of value-added activities (the actions a customer would pay for) or non-value-added activities in the process that either brings a concept to fruition or completes an order.

Any action that doesn’t add value or isn’t required as part of a policy or regulation is waste. Waste can include:

  • Transportation: the movement of products unnecessary for the process
  • Inventory: materials that aren’t required to process current orders
  • Motion: people or equipment that move more than necessary to complete the process
  • Waiting: periods of inactivity or interruptions in production
  • Overproduction: excessive production of materials ahead of demand
  • Overprocessing: extra work due to redundancies or poor tool/product design
  • Defects: the effort involved in checking for and fixing defects in the system
  • Skills: the act of underutilizing the knowledge and skills employees have

Process engineers identify these areas of waste to increase overall value to customers.

Diagrams for Lean Manufacturing

Note that there is a lot of crossover between these various methodologies as far as the diagrams they use to analyze processes. Business process maps, for example, could prove helpful in detecting waste or organizing a plan to eliminate it. Many process engineers, however, use value stream maps as part of Lean manufacturing.

Value stream maps: Value stream maps document all the steps for delivering a product or service, from the start of production to delivery. These diagrams layer the process with a timeline measuring value-added activities and non-value-added activities, so you can see which activities you should remove from the process.

If you’re currently using Lean methodology or would like to start, Lucidchart can help you diagram your processes. Try out our value stream map templates or learn more about value stream mapping before you start.

value stream map

Total Quality Management (TQM)

Total Quality Management predates Six Sigma and Lean methodologies, gaining a lot of attention in the late 1980s when the US Federal Government began using it. Success results from customer satisfaction within this system. As with Six Sigma, TQM can vary from company to company, but organizations using TQM generally follow these principles:

  • Organizations should follow a strategic and systematic approach to achieve their goals.
  • Customers determine the level of quality.
  • All employees work toward common goals. Effective communication and training ensure that everyone understands the definition of quality and strives to achieve it.
  • Organizations should define the required steps of any process and monitor performance to detect any deviations. They should continually look for ways to be more effective and more competitive.

Measurements for quality depend on the company, though some use established standards, such as the ISO 9000 series.

Diagrams for TQM

TQM companies have used many different diagrams to troubleshoot quality issues. The original TQM plan instituted by the US Navy used seven tools to measure quality, including the Ishikawa diagrams mentioned earlier, flowcharts, and check sheets. Many companies also use PDCA cycles.

PDCA cycles: This diagram goes by many names, including the Deming cycle and control circle. Whatever you choose to call it, a PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle is used for continual process improvement. The cycle lists the proposed plan (including objectives and the steps of the process), the process for testing that plan, and the process of checking that plan’s success. If the plan was successful, that process becomes the new standard.

If you’re interested in any of these methodologies, start analyzing, improving, and storing your processes right in Lucidchart.

We’ve covered three major process improvement methodologies, but there are many more available, along with a ton of additional practices that correspond with Six Sigma, Lean, and TQM. What system have you used at your business or organization? How has it worked out for you? Share your experience in the comments.