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Design for Six Sigma

One of the most successful business practices used in the corporate world today is Six Sigma, which is a data-driven methodology for eliminating defects. During the development of new products or services, a process called Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) can be used to help ensure that the product or service can be manufactured or can operate at Six Sigma standards. DFSS can be described more simply as “design for reliability.” No matter what terminology is used to describe process control and improvement, the desired end state is usually the same.

To begin a study of DFSS and process improvement, you need an understanding of the goal of Six Sigma. So, what is the goal of Six Sigma? Simply put, the goal of Six Sigma is no more than 3.4 defects per 1 million opportunities.

You do not have to understand all of the internal devices of DFSS, nor do you have to be particularly well versed at statistical methodology, to understand the need to apply the principles of Six Sigma. Basically, DFSS is building a better mousetrap by refining all the processes used to build it until the failure rate of the mousetrap falls to an acceptable level. If you are among those people who are familiar with buzzwords, you may recall that the military has long benefited from “reliability and maintainability analysis.” But the working aspects of these disciplines often have been hidden as procurement policy has vacillated, so the product itself simply failed to improve further. Historically, failure mode and effects analysis is associated with component failure rates. However, a manufacturing operation could be considered a component, if loosely interpreted. Any process that adds value is a potential DFSS candidate.

The importance of accepting process improvement at all levels has been documented. Without it, corporations have found that resistance to change and simple defiance can derail the entire effort. Perhaps the biggest issue in any systemic change is cultural resistance. This is certainly true in the military, except in turbulent times. Then, the end state will be dramatically different from the beginning state because the operational necessity driving change is stronger than the notional resistance that is maintaining the status quo.

Processes can be improved at any level. However, lower-level changes in industry are typically forfeited in favor of those that will produce a larger cost reduction and, therefore, more profit for the company. A stepping stone to DFSS is “Lean” thinking. This means establishing smoother process flows, doing only those activities that add customer value, and eliminating all activities that do not. In short, all levels in an organization can benefit from Lean thinking.

Think about the processes or issues that have the biggest impact and thus stand to earn the biggest profit when improved. For instance, an analysis of zero-balance line items on a stockage list would be an ideal candidate for improvement. One principle of DFSS (and of Lean) is to pick the “low hanging fruit” first. Gather data, chart the trends, and draw conclusions. Before you know it, you have applied some of Six Sigma’s fundamental methodologies: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control (DMAIC).

Benchmarking data is key in any improvement effort. You might find that you are not using the right measurables. Consider the list of zero-balance items on our example stockage list. Is a low zero balance an important measurable, or is it an indicator that the regulatory review periods for stockage need to be revised? Is unused inventory kept on hand too long before it is removed? If the zero balance is high—perhaps greater than 50 percent—would you reach an appropriate stockage level with use or a slower than acceptable resupply? The answer lies in process analysis.

The Army Materiel Command (AMC) has embarked on a business transformation program to implement DFSS and Six Sigma. Although this program is still in relative infancy, it has been presented to AMC’s managers, some of whom are responsible for instilling the importance of process control in the rest of the Army. Process control will drive the business transformation that the Army has begun.

Staff Sergeant Michael P. Winkler, USAR, is a course writer in the Leadership Development Directorate of the 84th Army Reserve Readiness Training Command at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marian College and a master’s degree in business administration from Indiana Wesleyan University. He is a Six Sigma Green Belt.