What is DMAIC?

DMAIC (often pronounced “der-may-ic”) is a model from Lean Six Sigma to plot a project from start to finish. There are 5 stages in the DMAIC methodology to guide you from identifying a problem through to having a robust solution in place.

What Does DMAIC Stand For?

The acronym DMAIC stands for: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control.

The DMAIC model (and the Lean Six Sigma methodology) is best used for process improvement projects. Not every project will naturally fit the DMAIC model. If you are using DMAIC in the wrong type of project, you’ll feel like you’re being held back from making the progress that you need to. More on this later.

What are the DMAIC Phases?

Define Phase

You’ll be identifying and clarifying the problem or challenge during the Define phase. You’ll be pulling together the project team, building the project charter and focusing on what your customers want, need and desire.

It can be tempting to rush through the Define phase to reach the more “exciting” stages later in the project. If you do this though, you risk not having the clarity of your goals later which can slow you down and put you much further back. For example, if you rush through defining what is critical to your customers then, later on in the project, when it comes to defining what the customer value add elements are, you just won’t know.

Once you are clearer on your challenge and have built out a good project charter or project brief, you’re ready to move onto the Measure phase.

Measure Phase

In this phase, you’re going to be collecting a lot of data to support your analysis of the situation.

This data is both quantitative (classic data collection, usually in number format, which can be recorded and written down) and qualitative (this is more opinion based, often taking the format of comments which could come from surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc.).

The Lean Six Sigma methodology has a major focus on data throughout the life of a project. Many of the tools are based on statistical analysis and these need to be fed by good data. So, you’ll really focus on data collection in the Measure phase and you’ll find this useful throughout the rest of the project.

Armed with stacks of data, you’re ready to move to the next DMAIC phase.

Analyse Phase

The Analyse phase is about understanding what is causing the problem.

During this stage, you will take your understanding of the problem and add all of the data collected from Measure. You will be wanting to test your assumptions on how the data and the process steps and outputs fit together.

The greatest challenge to doing a good job in the Analyse is the natural desire to rush straight into the Improve phase to start generating ideas. The risk of doing this is that the solutions you develop may not focus on the actual causes and consequentially may not last for the full timeframe before failing.
Throughout the Analyse phase, make sure that you know which problems you will root cause and any hypotheses that you will test. You should set clear expectations with your stakeholders around how much time the phase will need.

By successfully doing this, you will have a full understanding of your problem with supporting data. This then means that you’re ready to move onto the Improve phase.

Improve Phase

How will you solve the problem? Having been through the earlier 3 stages, you should now have a much greater understand the problem, the root causes and what a customer wants.

Improve is the phase where you generate ideas and develop them into a solution, tests the solution and implements it. You should also be looking to collect more data, this time to confirm that the solution has solved the problem.

You should start this phase of DMAIC by generating a list of ideas to solve the problem or part of the problem. Brainstorming is most commonly used here, although there will be plenty of other sources for new ideas too.

You will then take your long list of ideas and whittle them down through a selection process. You’ll want to make sure you’re being strategic about this. The chosen solution(s) will also need development to hone and perfect them.

Once you’ve developed your solution, you should have a clear “to be” process map. You can then use this for stakeholder engagement, building your communications and training materials as well as building in operational checks to ensure that the new process is being followed.

This phase is often (but not always) the longest phase during the high resource portion of a project (Control may be longer but needs less hands on support).

Control Phase

The final stage for your DMAIC project is Control which is about embedding your improvement into the ongoing operation. Your project will ultimately be seen as a failure if this doesn’t happen.

If your solution is not sustained, all of your efforts up to now will be wasted.

During this phase, you will implement a “Control Plan”. This is a way of monitoring the performance with agreed signals and triggers in place to alert the team to a dip in performance.

As in all projects, it will be important to prove that benefits have been realised. This in turn will demonstrate that the project has been worthwhile doing. For me, one of the key aspects of a DMAIC project is that you’ll know what data it is that you will want to collect early on. From the Measure phase, you’ll have started collecting this data.

You are now ready to hand the newly improved process back to the process owner. This is the person who will continue to oversee and run the relevant operation from now on. They will now be responsible for keeping the new process improvement alive, using your Control Plan.

Once you’re through the Control phase, you can celebrate the success that you’ve achieved. It is time to close the project and officially disband the project team.

Should You Use DMAIC For Retail Projects?

As mentioned earlier, DMAIC doesn’t fit every situation and isn’t right for all projects. The DMAIC project lifecycle works well in situations such as if:

  • You don’t know what the answer or solution is going to be
  • There is a business need to improve the efficiency of a process
  • Your customers are not satisfied and you don’t know why

Using DMAIC in retail is not such a good idea if:

  • You know what the solution is – this is more of a ‘just do it’ situation
  • You’re looking to design a new process
  • Your scope is intentionally very wide

You also need to consider how to use DMAIC tollgates to act as major milestones through your projects. How could you use them for important sign off decisions? Will your Project Sponsor be able to commit?

Examples of When to Use DMAIC in Retail Projects

Situations where you could use DMAIC in retail projects include (but not limited to!) when you would want to:

  • Make it faster to relay and remerchandise stock on the shop floor
  • Improve head office processes to manage ranges
  • Increase depot pick accuracy

The common theme for when to use DMAIC in retail projects is that you don’t know the answer before you begin. Sure, you might have some initial ideas, but you don’t know for sure.

Let’s take the final bullet point from our examples of when to use DMAIC in retail projects – “increase depot pick accuracy”. Perhaps you know it’s not hitting the targets or it would be a big opportunity to dial up the expectation by 0.1%. There are a number of ways that your project could take this on. Therefore, DMAIC would be a good approach to help you take a data centric approach with a strong customer focus to move forward.

But, now let’s say that actually your challenge is already understood by the business. So, now your project outline is actually “increase depot pick accuracy… of new starters through better training of the pick and check processes”. In this instance, your improvement project is already pretty specific in the solution that you’ll use. So DMAIC would not be the best solution – you already know what your solution will be already. So, if you’re sure that you understand the problem, you’re better to just get on with it.

DMAIC in Retail Projects Can Work…

…But you’ll just need to decide if it is actually the best methodology for your project!

Next Steps to Using DMAIC in Retail Projects

You need to decide if DMAIC is the right lifecycle for your project. Will it help you or will DMAIC hold you back from delivering faster for your organisation. What are the processes that you want to improve? (If you can’t be specific in this answer, it’s probably not for you!).


project management expert Oliver Banks

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