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Dec 27, 2010

Six Sigma Process Mapping

Process mapping is a valuable and widespread lean manufacturing tool, but few realise it is also a vital strategic weapon in the fight for Six Sigma quality. Executive rhetoric frequently focuses on instilling a "quality mind-set", where kaizen or continuous improvement is an embedded feature of the organisation. Typically, words are easy but genuine cultural change is problematic. Deming's "Fourteen Points" analysis, regarded by many as the seminal text of the quality movement, was unsparing in its commitment to lasting and permanent cultural change.

Deming's statistical insights fused seamlessly with existing Japanese philosophy, the reality of team decision making and an organic commitment to excellence. Some concluded that lean processes were therefore culturally contingent and could not be easily transplanted to Western business models. Deming believed that excellence had universal applicability but that true quality could, paradoxically, only be achieved by the abandonment of exhortation and numerical targets. Quality had to become a reflex and an internalised value rather than a mere box-ticking exercise.

Executives peer through a limited window onto the organisation. To use the language of the Johari window, a popular trope in cognitive psychology, the "known factors" that leaders can influence and control are limited. They hold some insights that are not known to others on the strengths and opportunities of their organisations. Equally, others such as Wall Street analysts may perceive insights into their business that the managers are unaware of. Yet the great unknown, whether defined on a macro-economic, competitive or organisational level, forms a vast and troubling canvas. Hence the widespread focus on incremental, progressive improvement - as exemplified in the process improvement discipline of Six Sigma which is specifically designed to optimise stable and repeatable processes.

This is where process mapping can be used at all levels of the organisation to bridge the divide between the tactical and the strategic. It has at least four main uses:

1) Identification of bottlenecks.

Process analysis, in its most basic and fundamental form, is a simple visual depiction of business activity. This may be in the form of a classic "swim-lane" diagram with arrows to represent data or activity flow and with boxes to define discrete activities. Bright red "D" emblems may be used to signify a delay. This form of classic process map is perfectly placed for identifying roadblocks or bottlenecks. The root cause of these problems can then be assessed and specific Six Sigma tools used to "elevate" these bottlenecks according to the steps described in Eli Goldratt's Theory of Constraints.

2) Imagining the future.

A "future state" process map starts from a blank canvas and attempts to create a streamlined business process from first principles. This adopts the philosophy of zero-based budgeting - namely, that every activity or step has to be justified on a "line item" basis and its utility to the end product and consumer requirement must be analysed. The critical path from the current to the future state process map can then be determined and actions assigned. The ideal state process map should however be a "living document" as the ideal is a permanently evolving concept.

3) Multi-dimensional mapping.

Process maps are ideal tools for illustrating multiple dimensions on a single page. A complex business process - for example, the distribution and sale of agricultural machinery - will reveal extraordinary complexity on several axes. Legal changes (flow of title), accounting actions (invoicing and floor plan financing) can be mapped alongside logistics processes (delivery of tractors) and IT processes (data flows). The entire process can then be "stretched" geographically to visualise on a map. The resulting structure can offer a transformational insight into how the business operates.

4) Analysis of trade-offs.

Trade-offs in any system inevitably exist between quality, cost and time. The opportunity cost of any action or process is rarely considered but is perhaps the most fundamental question of all. While outside the scope of this article, the mapping of the alternatives, options and compromises inherent in any process can be linked to decision analysis to guide business action.

In summary, we can see how process maps bridge the divide between the operational and the strategic, from a microscopic focus on enhancing the quality of a widget to the grander applications of business design. People are largely visual animals and Six Sigma process mapping can energize a lasting cultural commitment to quality, just as Deming once imagined.