What is Six Sigma? And How Can it Help my Cookies?

POSTED: Feb. 08, 2017

DMAICHave you ever noticed how many different recipes there are to make chocolate chip cookies? There are as many ways to bake cookies as there are good and clever home cooks. What makes one better than another? Why do some use baking powder and some use baking soda? Why do some use water, while most use eggs, yet a smaller handful just require egg whites? What difference could they possibly make? As the most amateur of cooks, and I use that term very loosely, how am I to determine what is the best recipe to use for our upcoming bake sale at my church? And why did I volunteer to do this after all? So many questions, so little time. If only there was a way to figure out the right mix of ingredients, the right amount of each, the right cooking parameters, and ultimately, a way to measure my success. Hmmm? Any ideas? 

As a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, I’ve been known to think differently than others and my family has noticed. And many people have no idea what it is or what it means. “Martial arts? When did you do that? And what does Lean Six Sigma mean?” Ugh! They’ll never understand. Or, maybe this is the perfect opportunity to let them see me in action and they might just gain some insight into, “What is Six Sigma?”

Six Sigma is an orderly methodology that approaches quality problems with an emphasis on data-driven decision-making. Its origins are built upon the Scientific Method, which can be traced to Aristotle 2,000 years ago, which heavily favors the use of observation, hypotheses, testable predictions, refinement when necessary and the generation of theories based on the gathered knowledge. Mikel Harry created Six Sigma Methodology, DMAIC, in the mid-1980’s at Motorola to help the company improve their quality and competitive position. DMAIC stands for Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control. First, a problem needs properly defined and understood. Second, the process that is producing the problem should be observed, monitored, hypotheses developed, and information and data measured and collected about the problem and process. Third, the information and data should be analyzed to verify hypotheses formed from early opinions and observations. Fourth, plans will be established and implemented to prevent the problem from recurring; solutions must be tested and assessed to ensure executed solutions perform as expected. Fifth, all gains made in the Improve Phase must be maintained and sustained for ongoing benefit.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming has many documented quotes, one of which states, “Understanding variation is the key to success in quality and business.”

The focus of Six Sigma is on quality improvement, which can be divided into two approaches, both of which are important:

  1. Quality can be improved through the reduction of variation, improving predictability
  2. The alignment of the process with the customer’s expectations can improve quality

If a process is performing with minimal variation, but is not aligned with expectations, then what good is it? Likewise, if a process on average is performing as intended, but the variation is such that defects will be created, then how can it be relied upon? The DMAIC methodology was created to address these types of issues and is applicable to any business in any industry. The question isn’t whether Six Sigma works. But rather, whether you can make it work for you. Six Sigma has successfully been implemented in the:

  1. Manufacturing Industry, such as Automotive, Aerospace, Textiles, Electronics, etc.
  2. Service Industry, such as Banking, Healthcare, Marketing, Sales, Financial Services, Telecom
  3. R&D Organizations or R&D functions within organizations

So, how about Six Sigma working in the cookie baking industry, in a local company known as my house, in a department called my kitchen, with a workforce of competent, yet untrained employees known as my wife and me, for a customer-base of local cookie-eating patrons who like to frequent church bake sales? Could it work there? Of course. And I’m just the person to show you how. We’re simply going to follow the Six Sigma methodology to see it in action.

DEFINE the Problem

I need to figure out how to make a chocolate chip cookie. Then, of all the different recipes, which one is the best? And who should determine the operational definition of “best?” The DEFINE Phase of Six Sigma is all about defining the problem or current state so that it is understood. A Project Charter helps to hone in on this. A Project Charter has six key components.

  1. Purpose: This is assembled from the Problem and Objectives Statements
  2. Value: This defines the business case for the project
  3. Team: Roles are defined at the beginning of the project
  4. Scope: Developed from the high-level business objectives to establish boundaries for the project work
  5. Schedule: Gantt Charts and/or Project Length are determined to set time-based expectations
  6. Critical-to-Quality (CTQ) Metrics: Determined from the information collected during the problem and goal definitions

MEASURE Current State

It is during this Phase that I mapped out what I needed to do to prepare for the bake sale, created a Fishbone Diagram to determine what factors I need to consider, and narrowed them down in a Prioritization Matrix to the Critical X’s, or as Dorian Shanin called them, the Red X’s. This process helped to narrow the recipe field down to one basic recipe that included flour, baking soda, salt, butter, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, eggs and chocolate chips. There were still some questions in my mind though about some of the chosen ingredients, like baking soda or baking powder? Butter or margarine? Eggs or just egg whites? Time at temperature in the oven at eight minutes or 12 minutes? These were part of my Red X’s. I need to know more. Six Sigma says once you have observed the process and formulated opinions, it’s time to collect and analyze data to validate what you know.

ANALYZE Any Collected Data

I decided to analyze all four of the variables I listed above in a Design of Experiment or DOE. A DOE is just one of the analytical tools available in the Six Sigma toolbox. A DOE is a way to study multiple variables at different settings in conjunction with each other to determine an optimal result. A result in my case is to have chocolate chip cookies that any cookie-eating patron would love to eat….and eat….and eat. So, I set out to study the effects of the ingredients and to determine whether to use baking soda or baking powder, butter or margarine, eggs or just their whites, and different baking times. Sixteen recipe combinations were studied with 12 family members participating in the taste tests. An optimal recipe was determined, suggesting baking soda, butter, the full egg and approximately 11 minutes.

IMPROVE the Process

With the optimal recipe in hand, I needed to implement the new recipe into the current process of baking 24 dozen cookies for the church bake sale. The recipe instructions were rewritten and copies were made for both my wife and I so we could bake cookies and ensure consistency across different cooks at different times. The first batch was tasted by our 12 family members to confirm the changes worked as intended and then the baking marathon commenced.

CONTROL the New Process Changes

The new chocolate chip cookie recipe was updated in our home recipe book with the date of creation documented; also the church recipe book was updated. An audit plan is an excellent way to ensure any changes made in a process are verified and sustained. So, to be a good steward of the process, one was put together to ensure any bake sales in the future followed the new recipe.

REALIZE the Results

Some Six Sigma proponents are suggesting an R be added to the beginning and end of DMAIC to form R-DMAIC-R, with the first R representing Recognize and the last representing Realize. Recognize is pre-project work designed to focus a company’s attention to finding the right projects to work on that are going to satisfy the strategy of the company. Realize is about ensuring weeks and months after the project team has ceased activities, that the organization is realizing the benefits of the team’s improvements. I decided counting the cash at the end of the bake sale was a way to quantify the realization of my efforts. On top of sales dollars, extra donations far exceeded any previous year’s bake sales totals for our church. I’d say my efforts were a success. 

The Six Sigma methodology helped me to focus my efforts, follow a structure, improve the process by optimizing the factors and sustain improvements for the future. Turn a Six Sigma Black Belt loose on baking cookies and see what happens?