How To Make The Most Of The Process Map

An integral part of the Six Sigma methodology is defining a process very precisely, including every single detail of each step along the way. The best way to do this is with a process map, one of the most powerful tools available to Six Sigma practitioners.

About the process map

A process map looks much like a flow chart at first glance, but that is where the resemblance stops. The process map delves much deeper, includes more detail and results from an extremely rigorous development process.

For the process map to be effective it must include all aspects of a process, which means crossing organizational boundaries and sometimes pushing a few people out of their comfort zone as problems and issues are uncovered. The entire exercise is data driven, with each step noted with metrics and measurements along the way.

In effect, the process map takes a practical, existing situation and expresses it as a statistical model. This is what makes Six Sigma so different, because this mapping methodology allows sophisticated statistical analysis of a process. New statistical solutions can then be developed and applied back onto the process map before being translated back into a practical application.

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Focus on the current state

A common mistake made by organizations new to Six Sigma is to create their process map based on what the process should be rather than on what it is. This is understandable because it is far more exciting to jump ahead to creating something new, but it can also be a mistake that is fatal to the success of the Six Sigma project. Only by thoroughly mapping and understanding the existing process can the team correct problems and create an efficient new process.

Mapping the current state of a process also serves some important purposes:

• Establishes baseline performance information
• Allows the process to be visualized
• Clearly shows differences between what you think is happening and what is actually happening
• Sets the foundation for revising so that it shows what should be happening

Most experienced Six Sigma practitioners will tell you that the only time a process map should focus on the future state rather than the current state is when the project team is developing an entirely new process that does not currently exist.

Important process mapping tools

Effective and efficient process mapping requires the use of a good Six Sigma process mapping tool. You can use good old fashioned pencil and paper, or basic software packages such as Microsoft Visio.

To really maximize the benefits of a process map, though, we strongly recommend that you use a software tool specifically designed for the rigorous nature of Six Sigma process mapping. These tools enable the advanced statistical analysis and simulation that is required for Six Sigma projects.

A few examples include:

• Traxion
• iGrafX Process
• SigmaFlow

There are literally hundreds of Six Sigma software tools available, and the number continues to grow each year. Many organizations that use a Six Sigma consultant opt to use the software favored by the consultant, while others do their own research and evaluation to determine which package works best for their needs.

Draw the process

The actual drawing or mapping process is quite involved. It is not something that can be completed in just a day or two, because it takes time and rigorous development to reach the level of detail required.

Along with detailed information and data, the process map needs to be very specific.

It must include and define every point in the process, such as:

• Start point
• Process step
• Document
• Data
• Decision
• Transport
• Storage
• Inspection

The exact list of points will vary depending on the process. Regardless of the quantity and type of points you use, it is important that the process map use a consistent set of shapes, line, connectors, etc. This means using one shape for each process step, a different shape for each decision, etc.

Define the process points

Once you have the process mapped, it is time fill in all of the precise, detailed information that is required for each process point. Remember that the process map is data driven, so each point must be quantified in some manner. If you are using software that is specifically designed for Six Sigma methodology, it will prompt you to input some common attributes for each point.

Examples of these attributes might include:

• Cycle time of the operation performed at the individual process point
• Resources required, such as capital, materials, labor, etc.
• Value added by that process step, expressed in a unit of measure that is useful to the organization; some process steps will be identified as non-value added
• Cost of the resources used during the specific process step, such as materials, labor, facilities, or indirect costs

Another visualization tool

Another visualization tool becoming more popular as part of process mapping is called swim lanes. Swim lanes are used to vividly show where processes cross departmental boundaries by showing each department in its own lane on the process map.

A typical example might look something like this:

Process Map Diagram

Although this is not an actual process map, it shows how swim lanes help to visualize how and where processes cross departmental lines. Process mapping software designed for Six Sigma use will have much more detailed shapes, connectors, colors and attributes available for your use.

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