There's a scene in the movie Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is puzzling over what his commanders have asked him to do, and even why they're asking him to do it. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that his project really hasn't been very well thought out.
If the commanders in the film had been Lean Six Sigma Black Belts, I wonder how the narrative would have changed. I suspect that Willard's assignment would have quickly been rejected as a vaguely defined yet overly complicated project with very little payoff, and instead his character might have been assigned a task that would actually accomplish something.
Using the appropriate tools at every phase of a big initiative can help quality practitioners choose improvement projects will make a big difference, rather than ones that take a team up the river only to leave them stranded or worse.
So if you've got a big, complicated process that needs to be improved, how do you figure out where a good Lean Six Sigma project for that process should begin and end?
Sometimes the answer is obvious , but if your process is complex you will probably benefit from taking a more systematic approach to identifying improvement opportunities. A good tool for this task is a SIPOC.
SIPOC is an acronym for Supplier > Inputs > Process > Outputs > Customer. Basically, the SIPOC is a high-level process map that defines the scope of a process. It helps you identify potential projects by isolating parts of the process that need improvement.
- On the left, you have process Inputs and Suppliers of those inputs
- In the middle, you have the Process
- On the right, you have the process Outputs and the Customers of the outputs
Completing the SIPOC
So, what information do you want to capture in a SIPOC?
- Start with Process. List the major steps -- most importantly, the start and end points -- so the scope of the process is clear. You need not list every step or activity.
- For Outputs, add both a Description and list Requirements.
- In Customers, list the consumers of your process output. They can be internal or external to your organization, and you may want to match each customer with an output description or requirement. You may not have a customer for every output.
- In Inputs, enter a Description, then the Requirements. For inputs with multiple requirements, use multiple rows.
- Handle Suppliers of your process inputs the same as you did consumers of the outputs. Again, you can match suppliers with input descriptions or requirements, and you don't need to list a supplier for every input.
As you can see, the information you gather by completing a SIPOC helps you answer questions about where a process starts and ends, its most important steps, primary inputs and outputs as well as your key internal and external customers and suppliers. With this information, you'll be better able to define a project that will result in real improvements while avoiding the risk of choosing a project that's too big to succeed.
A SIPOC form is included in Minitab's Quality Companion process improvement software. One cool thing about the Companion SIPOC form is that it shares the data you enter with other tools, so you don't have to re-enter the same information in separate tools as you go through your project. Of course, you could also just use pencil and paper!
Have you used SIPOC to define processes and help you select projects?