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Columnist: A. Blanton Godfrey

Photo: A. Blanton Godfrey

  
   

Avoiding Paralysis by Analysis
It’s OK to use simple, common tools to solve problems without going through the entire DMAIC process.

A. Blanton Godfrey

 

 

A few weeks ago, a friend called with a question. Part of a critical process within his company involved bonding fibers to a backing sheet. Something was wrong with the adhesion, and the fibers were pulling loose in the middle of the sheets. At least eight critical variables had been identified as sole causes.

My friend, a well-trained Six Sigma Black Belt, would have no trouble solving this problem if he and the company decided to make it a Black Belt project. But his question was far more direct: Was it OK to use one of the Six Sigma tools without going through the entire five-step process?

My answer, of course, was, “Of course!” He was faced with a classic design of experiments problem. This simplest solution would probably identify the critical variables and the right levels at which to control them to eliminate the problem.

Later, I started thinking about how we’re training people in Six Sigma and other quality initiatives. Perhaps we’re overreacting to the days when “tool merchants” would oversell a particular method as the solution to all problems. Now, most quality training courses--especially in sessions such as Six Sigma Black Belt training--emphasize a thorough process for quality improvement. We carefully define, measure and test before we plan our experiments and establish our controls. It’s easy to construct examples in which skipping a step leads us down the wrong path. But by helping people do everything exactly right, perhaps we’re also helping to create a new version of “paralysis by analysis.”

Often, when I review Black Belt projects, I hear apologies because all the tools haven’t been used. Not long ago I reviewed a project in a contract research organization that designs and manages clinical trials for drug companies. One of the most difficult steps in an extremely complex process involved designing the study’s data-collection plan. If this were not done correctly, the entire study could be useless. It might generate enough data to provide conclusive results, but these might not be accepted by the Federal Drug Administration, and, consequently, the product wouldn’t be approved. In that case, the study would have to be extended to include groups not adequately represented in the sample.

Due to the importance of this step, designing the data-collection process took many months and numerous reviews and discussions. Until the design was done, almost nothing else could proceed. This was the company’s major bottleneck in increasing its capacity and growing its business. During the project review, the Black Belt apologized for the limited number of tools and methods used. Basically, the team had discovered breakthroughs by using a series of bar charts and other simple graphical methods. They clearly saw the changes they could make to both improve designs and radically reduce cycle times.

In another review, a Black Belt hadn’t gone much beyond the first stages of defining the process. She’d done a thorough process flow diagram--actually a value-stream analysis--and discovered just how fouled up the process was. Her company had expanded rapidly during the past 10 years and added new models, steps and tests in the manufacturing process. With each addition, they also added workstations wherever space was available. After a while, the process made no sense at all. Stepping back and looking at it as a complete process, she found many areas for quick improvements. Some were simple changes to prevent damage that occurred along the line but was discovered late in the process and repaired at significant cost. Other changes involved providing proper lighting at workstations so employees could more easily detect problems as they occurred and eliminate the causes.

In case after case, I’ve found examples in which the thorough application of simple methods solved a number of important problems in a company. We should ensure that people feel comfortable using the right tool in the right place. For years, many of us in the quality world have been quite critical of those who, knowing only a few tools, try to apply the same ones to every problem. But perhaps we should stop and think: If a company is full of nails that stick up, maybe it should just be using hammers.

 

About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey, Ph.D., is dean and Joseph D. Moore Distinguished University Professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles. Prior to his current assignment, he was chairman CEO of Juran Institute Inc.

During the past 15 years, Godfrey has worked with companies in more than 60 countries. Letters to the editor about this column can be e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.