A manufacturer may face stringent customer requirements that prompt the process improvement journey. Or, it may be an intrinsic endeavor; an internal quest for excellence. No matter whether it is driven by internal or external pressures, no matter the tools, techniques or methodologies employed, process improvement must begin with communication and collaboration.

"Quite honestly, process improvement and most improvements, as well as any significant money that is spent, in my experience, is driven from your customers' demand," says Joe Kirchner, principal for The North Highland Co. (Atlanta). "If there's a specific thing that a major customer wants, you do it," says Kirchner. He explains further that when he was a materials manager for an automotive supplier and General Motors wanted to see a different process or have a product modified in a certain way, the wheels were immediately put in motion to make it happen.

Rick Schleusener, master consultant for Six Sigma Academy (Scottsdale, AZ), agrees with Kirchner that process improvement is, in part, internally driven. "But a piece of what I think is driving the need for process improvement is some external factors like competition, changes that happen and customer expectations. That is a continuously evolving proposition for manufacturers," Schleusener says. "And because of that, the need to change is externally driven, but it requires a lot of extra forces internally to make a change happen." Some of those internal forces include resources both in terms of training to learn the kinds of technology that are used, as well as people's time and access to learn and apply the correct kind of techniques.

Adding value for the customer
Kirchner says that in companies that he has worked for or consulted with, the employees worked hard at developing a sound internal process that often holds no value for the customer. He suggests getting a clearly defined picture of what a customer wants. "Hopefully your customer tells you not only what he wants, but what timeline is involved as well."

Kirchner suggests that once a company has received a directive from a customer, the vice president of manufacturing should pull his department heads together and do a gap analysis to see what the company is doing and how far it varies from the customer's requirements. "Then start lining up the steps that need to happen and treat it like a mini project where you first identify what the customer wants, then you gap between where you are and what they want, then start to identify the steps that need to happen and assign responsibilities." He says these steps could include measures that a company has not taken before so new controls may need to be put in place.

When implementing a process improvement for one customer, Kirchner cautions not to alienate existing customers. "Hopefully whatever they're requiring exceeds the demands of the other customers or at least matches other customers' demands, so there are benefits to be gained overall," Kirchner says.

From his experience, Kirchner says that control charts provide the best results "because you're tracking it at the point of creation or at a step in the process that creates the condition that has to be measured and defined as compared to the quality requirements. You're measuring right at the point where it's affected the most and it allows you to measure how well you're doing and put in correct measures, but it also allows you to identify [potential problems] before you produce a whole day's worth of work."

Control charts can be misunderstood though. While visiting a supplier, Kirchner noticed all of the control charts posted by the particular step in the process with data points were plotted outside the range of the upper and lower limits, but there was no indication that anyone was reacting to the data. "I think what it comes down to, and this is an ongoing problem, is the training of people involved in the process. The guy running the machine at this particular vendor was doing his job the best that he knew how, and he had been told to plot these points, but he wasn't told what he was supposed to do if these points strayed beyond these control limits."

Another approach
Schleusener says that part of the power that comes from using Six Sigma methodology is the focus that comes from defining customer needs, finding projects and applying tools. "So we've got a four-step process-measure, analyze, improve and control. But that has a front end and a back end. The front end is all about finding appropriate projects and those projects need to come from the key things that are important to the organization and its customer."

Assume, for example, that a company is manufacturing car seats for a customer. Schleusener explains that opportunities exist to improve the manufacturing of the car seats, but the first thing to do is look at the key requirements of the customer, such as cycle time or the product's level of quality. Given all of the customer expectations, begin with the one that matters most to the customer. Say, in this case, the expectation is timeliness.

"Six Sigma methodology is all about building a model," Schleusener explains. "We find some key, some characteristic. In this case let Y be the amount of time between when we get the order and when we deliver it to the customer. We're going to go off and collect a bunch of data about that Y."

Drilling down in the process it is discovered that the amount of time it takes to deliver the seat is dependent upon several factors: the method of transportation used to move the seats from the seat manufacturer to the auto manufacturer, the number of seats in inventory and defects in the seats remaining in inventory.

It is time to drill down again. "The biggest opportunity we have is a high quality seat so we don't have to go in and rework it," Schleusener says. By collecting more data it is determined that some seats have a tear in them while 70% have grease marks.

In the measure phase it is determined how capable the process is, how capable it is running and then brainstorm for all of the different reasons that could affect it. In the case of grease on the seat cushions, there could be multiple reasons: different shifts, different line of operation, level of training or maturity of the operators. "When we apply the Six Sigma methodology, we let the data lead us to the answers instead of using our best guess," Schleusener explains.

In the analyze stage, the statistics from all of the brainstormed ideas lead to the variables that really matter and make a difference to the process.

"In the improve phase, instead of just relying on historical data to try to find out what the causes are, we're going to go and play with the system," Schleusener comments. "Maybe it's the viscosity of the grease. Maybe it's when it gets applied, whether it's midnight or noon, that makes a difference. We're going to go tweak those process control parameters ourselves and then find out what the data tells us." At the end of the improve phase, an answer is derived from the data.

By fixing the things defined in the improve phase, a company can move forward to the control phase. "As we leave that project, we don't want to lose that learning," Schleusener explains. "As a new mechanic comes in on shift one, we want to make sure that person gets the training he needs to make this thing work correctly as well. So the control phase is the paperwork to make it stick." The goal is that this allows the seat manufacturer to get seats to the customer when they need it.

Schleusener believes that the one step that is overlooked most often is that Six Sigma is less a statistical tool and more about organizational focus and creating a collaborative effort "because without those two things, we're going to miss part of the magic that helps us come up with that answer."

Marcia Lemmons, vice president of marketing at Six Sigma Academy, which has done 21,000 process improvement projects, says, "Six Sigma is viewed as a statistical tool set and it's deployed primarily for that, but at the end of the day all of our clients are really saying it's the cultural change that is the biggest benefit."


  • Process improvement relies on communication and collaboration.
  • Process improvement is driven by both internal and external forces.
  • Customer directives are the most influential external force to affect process improvement.
Six Sigma Methodology
D Define customer needs and improvement goals
M Measure variables of the process
A Analyze data to establish inputs and outputs
I Improve system elements to achieve performance goals
C Control the key variables to sustain the gains
Source: Six Sigma Academy