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Dear Valentine, DMAIC? A Six Sigma Analysis of Love

Contributor: Rod Hill
Posted: 01/26/2012
Rod Hill
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Can you apply process improvement tools to improve human relationships? Yes, writes Rod Hill, Six Sigma Master Black Belt Manager for JEA, in this special article for Valentine’s Day. Here’s how.

I received an interesting note recently from a student I had taught in the UK in which she profusely thanked me for "saving her marriage." She claimed the application of process improvement tools I had taught her had transformed her marriage from miserable to delightful. They had applied the basic Toyota Improvement Model.

The three steps are:

  1. Honestly assess the current situation
  2. Envision the ideal state
  3. Close the gap

She had honestly assessed her marriage and discovered that both she and her spouse were miserable. They had envisioned a marriage where both were happy and excited to be with each other. By carefully exploring the various dimensions of their relationship (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual), they were able to describe an ideal state that they could agree upon. Then, they set about closing the gap together.

That’s Toyota. But I wonder if a Six Sigma approach also wouldn’t provide similar results? What would it look like to apply the DMAGIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Green, Improve, Control) approach to the process of maintaining a committed relationship between two adults?

If love is a process - let's improve it!

Define Phase

One must determine "What Is Needed from the Process" if we are to make it better. In the world of Process Improvement, we describe Value as having the dimensions of Appropriate, Correct, Economical and Timely. We find it simply logical to define the Quality Indicators (Q’s) and upstream Process Indicators (p’s) for each of these dimensions.

In exploring interaction between two people, it has often been said that each relationship has a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimension. How hard is it to develop a simple set of Q’s and p’s (our measurable Critical To Quality concerns) to understand how well each of those dimensions is doing in a relationship? We all do it with our hearts but almost never focus on it with our minds to understand what is happening. We just reap the emotional responses to the relationship.

As Dr. Phil would say, if we are to improve our relationship it must become a project with high enough priority to put ahead of other things that compete for our attention. Why are we working on this project at this time? A break-up or divorce may be imminent. A couple might just want "more" out of the relationship. Successful Process Improvement Projects require a clearly defined defect and a motivated Champion. Relationship building requires an honest assessment of the truth about the relationship and a willingness to address the things that need to be changed. That sounds like a defect definition and motivated Champion(s) to me.

All relationships can be described at a high level with a simple SIPOC (or COPIS or IPO) chart. The Suppliers are the parties involved in the relationship. Each brings the inputs of the iron triangle of Values and Attitudes coupled with Success Paradigms and tempered by perceived Rewards and Recognition opportunities. The essential Process is the execution of transactions involving and affecting the parties involved. The Outputs of the Process are three types of experiences… Positive, Negative and Neutral. The Customers of the Process are the parties themselves and Society around them.

Defining a defect in the process could be one of two conditions; 1) When a Negative Experience occurs or 2) When either a Negative or Neutral Experience occurs. It is pretty clear that Positive Experiences are the desired outcomes that make relationships grow and thrive.

Having a Project Charter helps many Improvement Teams stay on track. Is it necessary for a couple to write a Project Charter to improve their relationship? No! But does it hurt anything? Usually that is probably also a "no". For most projects, success or failure is baked in right at the Define phase. Getting things out in the open to reach consensus on what problem(s) needs to be explored can often help by itself with no further progress on the DMAGIC path.

Understanding what is Included/Excluded from our focus helps find what can and should be changed and helps us steer away from the things that cannot be changed. The successful improvement of a relationship almost always has Financial and non-Financial benefits. Knowing what the potential benefits are for improving the relationship can help motivate both folks to work at finding ways to do this work.

Whether you use a RACI or an ARMI Chart, determining who is involved and how in the maintenance of the relationship is valuable. I have used this one chart to facilitate a conversation with my wife about an individual who was having a negative impact on our family relationships. We decided to close out a relationship when we understood the impact the individual was having on our lives. Understanding who is involved and how they are impacting the process and the project will help guide our actions.

And finally, there is a need to have some sort of timeline for how you will pursue this project to improve the relationship. Since process improvement works for winning customers, why not for fixing personal relationships? The timeline needs to reflect the urgency of the need as well as the capacity of the couple to work on the relationship.

Measure Phase

Our first step to honestly understanding the current state is to Document the Existing Process. Often called the Gemba Walk by Lean practitioners, somebody has to look carefully to understand the transactions and activities involved in the relationship maintenance process. Taking a page from Stephen Covey, we each have an "Emotional Bank Account" with one another and all transactions are deposits, neutral or drafts (checks). Many transactions happen directly between the two people involved like text messages, e-mails, notes on Facebook, Tweets, conversations on the phone or at the table or at a party or watching TV or playing a video game.

However, many transactions that shape the relationship are between one person in the relationship and others who are not involved in the relationship. Things like purchases, seeing other people, doing things without the partner in the relationship. Capturing what is really involved in the process called Relationship Maintenance is a bit complex but no worse than many processes we deal with every day.

Another student of mine used an XY Matrix to guide the selection of the wedding venue to make sure that the wishes of both mothers and of the bride and groom were taken care of in the decision process. The result was a beautiful wedding within budget, delighted both the Mothers and was fun for the bride and groom.

So many decisions we must make are loaded with emotion. The XY Matrix allows people to look at the things driving the satisfaction or dissatisfaction in their relationship in more concrete terms and helps minimize the emotions in the discussion. If we do it well, it can actually help two people figure out what the probable levers are to lift a relationship to new levels. A good starting point might be something like this XY Matrix.

Just talking about what contributes to the strength or weakness of the relationship can be healing as a method of communication that is not emotionally charged. The result of the Matrix is to understand what dimensions of the relationship are most impactful on what the individuals want out of the relationship. This is a great approach for a mature relationship with history and a memory of good and bad things. But what about a new relationship without a history to draw from?

There is a tool called Fault Mode Exposure Analysis that lets a project team (couple) explore potential failure points BEFORE an actual failure occurs. It even allows the calculation of a Risk Priority Number to help focus on the most important things first. Using an FMEA is way beyond the scope of this fun little article but it can be useful.

At this point, the folks in the relationship can identify the Focus of the Project Investigation. I teach people to explore no more than six inputs at a time. There are a variety of approaches suggesting more or fewer x’s to be explored in the first pass. Using the Root Cause Investigation Matrix can allow the people involved to see what is worth exploring to understand how it affects their relationship.

That will direct them to define the appropriate Data Acquisition Plan. Validating the Measurement System can be a challenge because transactions are sometimes difficult to identify. A Toyota trick is to maintain a Daily Log of what happened today. It is never perfect because it is maintained by 2σ human beings but it is usually helpful in making decisions and is certainly better than no data. Now folks can begin to characterize the relationship to understand the truth that allows them to "Honestly Understand the Current State."

At this point, the folks involved have to make a critical decision about what the relationship is facing. Are the issues at hand Common Cause or Special Cause? Knowing what type of cause we are dealing with allows the application of the correct strategy and tactical choices. For instance, one partner is the Chief Accountant for a company that has gone public in the last year and it is Yearend Closing. A quick look at work hours shows a mean of 82 hours per week at work for the last four weeks. Everybody agrees that this is negatively impacting the relationship. Is this a Common Cause of the habit of spending too much time at the office or is it Special Cause because it is the first Yearend Closing after the company went public? Choosing a Special Cause reduction strategy to address a Common Cause will fail just as completely as choosing a Common Cause reduction strategy to address a Special Cause. The sorting holds the key to success!

Once an agreement is reached to pursue a Common Cause variation reduction strategy, we can proceed with the DMAGIC approach. We can begin to explore to find the truth using the tools of the Process Map, Baseline Data plots, agreed appropriate attention to the various areas of the relationship and the hypothesized probable x’s that drive the quality of the relationship.

Analyze Phase

A quick check back on the Project Charter to make sure we still agree that we are addressing the same problem and objectives is helpful. Using the Root Cause Investigation Matrix as our guide, we can begin to Determine the Criticality of Each X. Exploring things using facts (whether the tools chosen are logical (C&E with 5 Why) or data-based hypothesis-testing to determine causal relationships) can lead to a fact-based (honest) environment for choosing ways to improve the relationship. Once we understand what really moves the quality of the relationship, we have the chance to make new choices that can improve the relationship. Before we begin to explore any possible improvement ideas, we must understand the things that are off-limits for discussion. Understanding our constraints is the purpose of the next phase.

Green It Up Phase

This phase exists to protect egos BEFORE they become invested in any particular improvement ideas. Using the Relationship Matrix to fence off the things that cannot be considered as possible improvement ideas (aka countermeasures) is critical to avoid the hard feelings and damage to the human spirit that can happen without carefully and deliberately managing risk BEFORE opening the door to brainstorm improvement ideas.

Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I met and married. We were both smokers. I quit smoking on May 16, 2001. She still smokes. For us, any relationship improvement ideas that will include her quitting smoking are off the table before we begin any discussion. She has tried a myriad of approaches without stopping smoking. If we don’t take that possibility off the table, we could become ego-invested in an improvement strategy that includes her quitting smoking. If she is unable to quit, then she becomes the cause of failure of the idea and a "loser" which would certainly damage our relationship. Better to have it off the table before we begin to explore possible improvement ideas.

Deciding if the legal, moral and ethical standards will be respected needs to be defined before we look for improvement ideas. Using the Relationship Matrix as the tool to consider legal, regulatory and existing financial infrastructure barriers BEFORE we begin exploring countermeasures serves us well in the usual process improvement efforts and can serve well here also. That Relationship Matrix produces the Countermeasure Issue List which populates the Pugh Matrix for our first stop in the next phase.

Improve Phase

Revisit the Project Charter to make sure nothing has changed. Open the Pugh Matrix which is now populated with the constraints from the Green Phase as requirements down the left side. When we add our Primary and Secondary Metrics as requirements, we start to understand the purpose of the countermeasures (improvement ideas). Adding common items like Easy to Implement and Easy to Maintain will bring us closer to a valid evaluation tool to test ideas against.

Remember, the Pugh Matrix is an Idea Refinement tool. Its purpose is to take OK ideas and make them Good Ideas and then to take Good Ideas and turn them into Great Ideas (WOW!!!! ideas).

As each idea surfaces, we capture it in the next available idea column and explore its potential. As we move toward the right, we find modifications and combinations of ideas that are stronger and more powerful to help move the relationship where we want it to be. In the end, we want to implement the last best idea(s) that are now resident in the right hand column of the Pugh Matrix.

Some folks want a more precise tool where they can weight the various outcomes and prefer the Criteria Based Decision Matrix. While it is a good tool, it is not a particularly friendly idea refinement tool. Other things we often use like Computer Simulation, Risk Assessment, Designed Experiment and Pilots don’t seem to be terribly useful for addressing the relationship development, maintenance or repair processes.

Control Phase

It is good to look back at the Project Charter just to make sure we haven’t lost sight of the purpose of our work to develop a great relationship between two adults. It is time to develop a Transition Plan to move us from the Current State to the Desired State. This is the plan for actually closing the gap from what we are to what we want to become. This means there is a task list of what is to be done, by whom and by when. It means we have agreed on how we will transform the relationship into what we want it to be.

And once we get the things done that we identify in the Transition Plan, we will need some sort of Dashboard or Control Plan to track how well the relationship is doing so we can make adjustments as they become necessary over time.

For many couples, the issue of deterioration in communications is identified as the single biggest contributor to the dissolution of marriages. It is interesting that in business, we are sufficiently concerned about good communications that we have standing staff meetings and schedule routine 2-way feedback meetings between bosses and their subordinates and schedule routine sales meetings between suppliers and customers. But in the family setting, how many routine Family Meetings are scheduled? Is there a routinely planned "Date Night" to assure good communications between the adults in the family? These are "Dashboard" tools. Asking the question of "How are we doing?" works in sales and employee relationships. Why not employ that simple tool in the Relationship Maintenance process?

So, where does this bring us? Hopefully, we have used what we know to improve the Process Capability of our Relationship Maintenance process. Our intent was to improve a relationship by developing an improved Relationship Maintenance process. It is now a good time to look at what has been accomplished with some form of Updated Benefits Document. Understanding the accomplishment of the team (couple) as they have executed this project is important. We always make it a point to celebrate the accomplishments of any improvement team and the couple should, too.

While the celebration might include a nice dinner for the couple, my years of experiences with wives and girlfriends have taught me that a gift of chocolate, flowers, jewelry and a nice evening out almost always helps improve any relationship. Good luck in your pursuits of making love better!!

Author’s Addendum: When I shared the notions in this article with a friend, he laughed and said the ideas reminded him of one of the last conversations he had with his Dad, Buddy Friedman. After a long and durable marriage, Buddy (knowing that he was in the last couple of weeks of his life) was talking with his son. His son was asking about how his Dad and Mother had such a long, stable and fulfilling marriage. Buddy asked and answered a question. "Son, do you know why the man is always the first to go?" My friend said "No." Buddy’s answer "Because he wants to!" New insight into their long relationship!

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Thank you, for your interest in Dear Valentine, DMAIC? A Six Sigma Analysis of Love.
Rod Hill
Contributor: Rod Hill