A Simple Guide to DMAIC Phases, meaning, and useful examples
The DMAIC Methodology is the best kind of tool because it is both simple in its structure while being a powerhouse in its application. It’s one of those processes that makes complete sense when you see it for the first time and for many of us, you realize that you have been using some of the foundational elements already without knowing they had a name! The DMAIC Methodology is a problem-solving structure that provides the simplicity and discipline (or guardrails) to increase your chances of success. The DMAIC Process can be applied universally to problem-solving of all sizes in shapes, and that’s why we love it.
Here's Why You Need the DMAIC Methodology
If you think for a moment about your work or personal life, you can be sure to find some areas that could use improvement. Part of a successful life is realizing that it requires constant work to keep things running well, balance, and achieve personal and professional goals. Now that constant work can be a horrible slog, or it can be an invigorating and fulfilling experience that allows you to continually reach higher and higher goals. That choice comes down to how you will tackle the improvements that need to be done. The DMAIC Methodology provides the structure and tools needed and each time you successfully complete an improvement, you learn more and the DMAIC methodology becomes part of your way of thinking.
What does DMAIC stand for?
DMAIC (pronounced “duh-may-ick”) is a process that focuses on structured problem-solving. It is an integral part of Six Sigma, a method of continuous business improvement. The 5 phases of DMAIC are
What is DMAIC used for?
Put in the simplest of terms, DMAIC is structured problem-solving. In Business, DMAIC is used for continuous improvement, that is, ongoing structured actions taken to improve processes. To improve quality, speed, efficiency, safety, customer experience, and employee engagement, whatever we prioritize as most important to our customers, employees, and business.
The DMAIC structure is a critical foundation for the success of improvement efforts mainly because of the discipline it instills; before we begin solving a problem, we need to understand it, to DEFINE the process, the customer, and the problem. We then understand and measure the problem or opportunity, and so on.
Read more: The Top 5 Continuous Improvement Principles.
Improvement using the DMAIC cycle allows us the time and space that we need to do each of these critical phases very well. Without this structure, you can imagine that most people would jump right to solutions without truly knowing what it is that should or could change. And many of these solutions that go into place do not have the expected impact and many times, in fact, they make things worse. DMAIC applies to all improvement projects, big or small, and in any type of process.
Simple DMAIC Example
Learning the DMAIC Methodology is like learning anything else. You start with the basics, and you must give yourself time to practice. And applying it to a smaller or simpler project – and doing it well – is a great place to start.
The example of getting healthy is a good one for DMAIC. Let’s go through the phases of DMAIC one by one:
This is the starting point. Invariably, new teams who are learning the DMAIC Methodology will struggle with this very first step, which is to define the problem or opportunity and the goal. Typically, at this beginning phase of a project, the team will already have ideas of what is causing the problem and they will even start discussing ideas for solutions. The key to a good Define Phase is that the problem (or opportunity) is clearly stated without the inclusion of suspected causes or solutions. There are additional elements to the Define phase which are captured in the Project Charter, but the key milestone of the Define phase is to create the Problem/Opportunity Statement.
Simple Example DEFINE: The problem is that my clothes don't fit. The goal is to fit in my desired size in 3 months.
With the problem statement created, the team can brainstorm different ways to measure the problem. There are two main reasons why we must determine a key measure for our problem. First, it is important to validate that there is, in fact, a problem. In many cases, a lot of effort gets put into solving a problem only to find out way down the road that the problem was only an assumption and not really worthy of the team’s efforts. Secondly, measuring the problem allows us to create a baseline so that we can compare the current state to the improved state. Otherwise, how do we know if our project was successful?
Simple Example MEASURE: The project measure is Weight. Baseline = 175 pounds.
With the clear problem statement and baseline measure in place, the team can now use the plethora of tools in the Analyze phase to reveal the most significant root cause or causes of the problem. Using a combination of process analysis, data analysis, and brainstorming techniques, the team will uncover cause-and-effect relationships between the many potential causes in order to narrow their focus to the vital few. In the case of contributors to excess weight, the team will likely have analyzed factors such as calories consumed, hours of exercise, type of physical activity, type of foods consumed, sleep habits, medications, drinking habits, and so on. But through the analysis, the team has narrowed it down.
Simple Example ANALYZE: The two top causes of excess weight are 1) Daily consumption of Soda and Sugar-Sweetened Drinks and 2) Minimal physical exercise.
Read more: What Are The 8 Wastes of Lean?
With the problem statement, the measure, and now the two main root causes identified, the team is perfectly poised to create and develop ideas to remove the root causes, thereby resolving the problem. The Improve phase focuses on changes that need to be made in order to effectively sustain a true improvement. In other words, it wouldn’t be very effective to just say, “Stop drinking soda and exercise more”. There need to be new behaviors, new procedures, and new ways of working in order to make a real change. Tools in this phase include brainstorming techniques, future state process mapping, future-focused cause-and-effect, mistake-proofing, and risk management. The Solution Statement might look something like this:
Simple Example IMPROVE: Grocery shopping will be done at a local healthy market, and sodas will be replaced with carbonated water + a small amount of juice. Bicycle ride to the market instead of driving 2x/a week, and dog walking 4x/a week.
Those solutions sound pretty good! And actually, pretty doable. But how easy is it to slip back into old habits? Very. That’s why we have the control phase. This is where we think through powerful mechanisms to reinforce and support the new process and behaviors. The Control phase is so important, yet it is often overlooked. Teams are typically so excited with their new solution that they think they’re done just a bit too early. In this phase, the teams will rely on documentation, agreements, clear measures, and accountability as well as preventive measures and contingency plans to avoid the dreaded back slip.
Simple Example CONTROL: Join the VIP Loyalty Club at the local healthy market, utilize a lifestyle app to track food and drinks consumed, create a standing shopping list with staples (carbonated water, fresh juice), set 2 specific days per week for grocery shopping (Sunday and Thursday), get a raincoat for the bicycle rides in case of rain, commit to walking the neighbor's dog with yours to avoid skipping the dog walk.
This is all the opposite of buying a can of magic weight loss powder to help you lose weight and just hoping that it works...you see?
Read more: Problems are Funny.
Benefits of DMAIC
There are many common traps that will be avoided with the proper application of the DMAIC methodology. In the early phase of a project, without a shared and clear understanding of the problem and goal, teams often go off in multiple disjointed directions and the result is a lot of wasted energy and time. Without a clear project measure, there is no starting point or baseline and, upon project completion, it’s unclear whether the project was successful or not. If a skilled root cause analysis is not done (in the Analyze phase), the team will likely use gut feel, conjecture, or assumptions and will often be chasing ghosts with no real connection to the root cause. In the Improve phase, the team will use a structured approach to ensure that many options are considered, carefully weighed, and then selected. It’s much more than just shouting out ideas and then executing the most popular one. This often results in weak solutions that have little effect and actually end up causing more chaos in an already suffering process. Without the final C in DMAIC, the odds of things returning to old ways is huge.
DMAIC vs. DMADV
We’ve talked a bit about DMAIC, which improves existing processes. But what if there’s no process yet? Or what if the current process is SO broken with SO many roots causes that fixing it will take more work and resources than designing a new process from scratch? This brings us to the topic of Design. When we have a problem in an existing process, we use the DMAIC Methodology. When we are creating a new process or if our current process is a disaster, it’s time for a slightly different approach. And that approach is DMADV (pronounced Duh-MAD-Vee). While the foundational phases stay the same, the main differences are that we are not focused on Root Cause Analysis as we are with DMAIC, rather, we analyze the detailed interfaces and requirements of the new process. We are not “Improving” a process, we have to “Design” one. And lastly, we are not “Controlling” an existing process, we must “Verify” that it works. So, the key phases of DMADV are Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, and Verify.
Completing the DMAIC Methodology or DMADV Methodology from beginning to end will set you up for success. DMAIC is extremely important because as you’ll come to realize, the more complex the problem, the more we need a structure. Because, as we like to say, you've already done the easy stuff and already solved the easy problems. The only thing left is the hard ones! People and organizations continue to face the same problems month after month, and all their ideas to solve them don't really end up solving anything - the same problem just shows up next month in a different pair of pants!