The law of the Instrument and DMAIC

June 29, 2015

You may be familiar with the law of the instrument:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” -Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science

Sometimes companies assume that a single methodology (like DMAIC) applies all types of efforts. From project management to information technology design and everything in between, one system is put in place. This is usually done in an attempt to make training, coaching, and implementation as efficient as possible. It sounds like a great idea to have everyone on a single initiative. One training/coaching program and one set of terminology to deploy the process improvement program. Since process improvement is itself a process, surely standardization of that process is a good idea!

But while this assumption might make training and coaching more efficient, it can make many projects much less effective. There are several reasons for this. Translating the problem into the DMAIC framework can take time and effort. If there’s already a more tailored and specific method for these problems, that’s not a great use of time. It might also be that the project isn’t really a process improvement project (example: process design or innovation). Or it might be that there is already a known best practice that simply isn’t being followed.

Using DMAIC for these things can lead to frustration and perhaps even giving up on the process.

So what is DMAIC? And what isn’t it?

DMAIC stands for:

  • Define the problem
  • Measure the current state
  • Analyze potential root causes
  • Improve the process
  • Control the improved process.

QuestiontoBulbDMAIC and a dozen other problem-solving tools are just refinements of the scientific method for the business environment. DMAIC is a problem-solving method. It is a relatively generic set of steps with a suite of tools and templates that can be applied to a process that needs improvement. DMAIC is the “how” we are going to solve a problem (the “what”). If used correctly, it can provide a best solution to a less-than-optimal process (like high defects or high waste).

DMAIC is not a presentation format into which you can put documentation after you’ve decided on changes. Using a scientific method to solve a problem should prevent intellectual independence from a solution bias. It should lead you through the process to the best answer. Trying to fit a predetermined solution into a DMAIC framework means you’re starting with the answer and making the data fit your answer. You might hit on the right answer, but it won’t be because you arrived at it through a structured and disciplined process.

DMAIC is not an implementation method for already known best practices. It is a method for discovering what those best practices should be. If you already know what the process should be, and are not following the best practice, that’s not a good fit for DMAIC. It may mean you need project or change management, a higher level of process definition, or better control methodology.

DMAIC is not a design methodology. There is a sister method that has been developed to use for design projects called DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify). There are also others: IT design and implementation methodologies, innovation methodologies, etc. The process of design is by definition not an improvement. The problems that you are solving are not pain points within an “as is” process, but customer problems that need a specific solution.

Any defined method for any major business system should always be used as a set of guidelines. The real benefit is the practice and experience you build using the same general set of steps to solve different problems with different tools. By definition, practice and experience take time, and are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. If we teach folks to use DMAIC in the right circumstances and without bias, then they will not need experience with specific problems. Just the experience with problem solving in general will be broadly applicable. This will build capability, confidence and leadership across the organization.

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Selene Crosby

Six Sigma Expert

Ms. Crosby has 20 years of experience developing, implementing and improving successful business processes and projects in both technical and non-technical environments. Her areas of expertise include process improvement methodologies, process mapping, business process automation, analysis, project management, audit and internal controls processes, technical writing and training design. She is a Certified Analytics Professional (CAP), holds a Six Sigma black belt, Lean Bronze certification and an Innovation Engineering black belt. Ms. Crosby has been the Program Manager for Analytics Transformation at Andeavor Corporation (formerly Tesoro), worked in the Process Engineering Section at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) as part of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC) program, assisting small to mid-sized manufacturers in becoming competitive in an increasingly global economy by becoming aware of and implementing process improvement and business strategies. Ms. Crosby held a variety of roles at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati OH from September 1998 to June 2012 and attained internal P&G certifications including Continuous Improvement, Business Process Transformation and High Impact Training. .
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