DMAIC Define Phase: How to Define Your Project’s Problems

DMAIC Define Phase: How to Define Your Project's Problems

Six Sigma is a project management methodology for improving processes by systematically removing flaws and reducing variability. Six Sigma specialists use DMAIC, an analytical and problem-solving methodology, to meet performance goals. This tool comprises five stages: Define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. Each stage helps a company streamline its processes and achieve its business goals and objectives.

This article will focus on the DMAIC Define Phase. As one might expect from the name, the primary focus of this step in the process is defining the issue at hand and establishing the end goal for the project.

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What is the Define Phase?

This stage is the first in Six Sigma’s improvement process and is crucial to its success. Six Sigma practitioners need to identify and determine the problems a business is facing before they begin addressing how to solve them. It’s inefficient to tackle an issue without clarity on the existing challenges.

The goal at this point is to get everyone on the same page about the problem. During this stage, the project team collaborates to clarify the scope and identify the most pressing concerns. The deliverable of this stage is a clear description of the issue, the objectives, and the breadth of the work involved.

Importance of the Define Phase in the DMAIC Process

The purpose of the Define Phase of DMAIC is to clearly identify and determine the issue to be analyzed and to create a Project Charter that will establish a strong position for getting support for a go-forward with the plan from the Champion or Sponsor. 

During this step in the process, Six Sigma professionals should develop a clearly written and well-focused problem statement, which is the key to getting the scope of the project defined and to gathering support from the Process Owner or Subject Matter Expert, as well as gathering identification, engagement, and alignment to the operational and/or strategic plans of an organization.

Tools in the Define Phase

Some of the DMAIC Define Phase tools include:

1.      Stakeholder Analysis

Six Sigma experts use the Stakeholder Analysis tool to determine who has a vested interest in a project. They then categorize those stakeholders to determine how much weight to give to their feedback at different phases and how often and in what ways to keep them in the loop.

2.      Project Charter

This project tracking tool describes the business needs a project will answer as well as the intended outcomes. It officially launches a project and provides the designated Six Sigma professional the power to steer the initiative and pull from the necessary organizational resources.

3.      Root Cause Analysis

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a process for discovering the underlying causes of issues and developing a systematic response to them. RCA is a set of methods, processes, and tools, such as a tree diagram or the 5 Whys method, used to identify the most significant origins of a problem. While much of this analysis happens in the Analyze Phase, it also plays an important role at this point.

4.      Project Planning (Multi-Generational Planning)

Projects may be broken down into more manageable chunks with the help of Multi-Generational Planning (MGP). Breaking down projects logically and implementing them in phases allows the process development team to visualize the many stages of a product or service. MGP makes it easier to manage project scopes in process improvement initiatives.

Outputs of the Define Phase

The expected outcome after completing this step in the process is a shared understanding of the issue and the project’s goals. This provides a foundation for the rest of the DMAIC process and ensures that everyone on the project team is working towards the same objectives. Additionally, this step sets the stage for the successful execution of the project by ensuring that the right people are involved and that the project goals are clear.

Some of the deliverables that help with attaining these goals include:

  • A stakeholder analysis report
  • A problem statement
  • A list of Goals and objectives
  • A project plan
  • A list of project risks and assumptions

Define Phase Challenges and Tips

There are some challenges faced during this step in the process. First, Six Sigma specialists leading the effort may face difficulty getting buy-in from stakeholders on the problem statement and goals. Also, there may be a lack of clarity on the project scope and difficulty identifying the root causes of an issue. Finally, the resources required may be underestimated.

There are several best practices that can help ensure the Define Phase is successful and mistakes professionals should avoid.

Here are some best practice tips:

  • Assemble a small team to brainstorm the problem statement before drafting a Project Charter
  • Gather some initial data and take a walk about the process (known as a Gemba walk)
  • Be mindful of scope and make sure that the scope is appropriate to the need
  • Do not include multiple problems in one problem statement
  • Be sure to align metrics to the problem statement and scope
  • Be sure to identify the stakeholders and team members
  • Identify ad hoc team member needs and revisit as the project moves forward
  • Make sure a baseline data set for the issue and process can be established without exorbitant time and cost

Common mistakes include:

  • Trying to determine the problem without input from the stakeholders
  • Taking on too broad of a scope
  • Trying to solve more than one main problem within the scope of the project
  • Ineffective metrics
  • Baseline data not available
  • Assuming root causes within the problem statement

Example of the Define Phase

Here are two DMAIC Define Phase examples:

Example 1: A project to improve the quality of a product

In this case, the project team would work together to understand the root causes of the quality problem or defect rate and develop a plan for addressing the issue. Additionally, the team would determine the goals for the project and identify the key stakeholders who need to be involved.

Example 2: A project to improve customer satisfaction

In this case, the project team would work together to understand the root causes of customer dissatisfaction (such as long lead time), identify the key stakeholders, and develop a plan for improving customer satisfaction. Additionally, the team would identify risks and assumptions that need to be considered in the project.


The Define Phase can be a very critical path in the success or failure of an improvement initiative. If an organization defines the problem incorrectly, it will likely result in many misdirected attempts at improvement throughout all other phases. For that reason, every Six Sigma team member should familiarize themself with this stage and its tools in preparation for the rest of the DMAIC process.

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