Firefighting With DMAIC

Contain short-term problems, develop long-term improvements

by Ronald D. Snee and Edgar C. Gardner

As quality professionals, we like to solve problems by finding root causes and putting fixes in place. As a rule, we don’t like to fight fires, but sometimes we must.

If a building is on fire, for instance, firefighters first douse the flames, then find the root cause and fix it. If your daughter gets seriously hurt, you first console her and make sure she gets proper medical attention, and then you find out why it happened and change things so it doesn’t happen again.

Similarly, if a major customer has shut down its manufacturing process because your supplied product was late or unusable, you work to get your customer up and running ASAP, then you worry about finding out why it went wrong and fixing things so it doesn’t happen again.

These examples are situations in which containment—stopping the bleeding or putting out the fire—is needed before putting time and effort into problem solving and process improvement. The define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) framework can be used to accomplish both objectives: containment, and problem solving and process improvement.

Two objectives

Lean Six Sigma has many perceived manifestations: as a business culture, a general improvement philosophy, a continual improvement method, a set of leadership competencies or a measure of process performance. It has been highly successful in guiding organizations throughout the world to achieve significant improvements in profits, customer satisfaction, process performance and technology.1-2

The DMAIC framework—the project road map strategy at the core of lean Six Sigma—provides guidance, structure, standardization and effective means for communication, but it lacks urgency. DMAIC is incomplete as a one-stop problem-solving method. DMAIC is well designed for improvement projects but not well suited for urgent, critical, time-sensitive and must-solve-now issues.

Every business leader and quality leader knows significant problems (internal ones or those that have an impact on the customer) must be immediately addressed and quickly contained.

Containment is about taking immediate steps to eliminate or mitigate the problem’s impact. DMAIC does not include the required urgency to define an immediate containment step and, therefore, does not always address the loudest voice of the customer (VOC) who shouts, "Fix this now!"

The practical question business leaders and quality leaders must address is whether they use alternative strategies or tools (such as Eight Disciplines problem solving or A3 Thinking) for time-critical issues, or do they upgrade and revise DMAIC. The problem-solving framework—DMAIC—can be used by integrating containment actions, which will make it effective for all problem-solving and continual improvement situations.

Containment actions

Containment actions—sometimes referred to as "interim actions"—typically proceed along the following lines:3

A short-term and immediate fix is executed to isolate or reduce the problem’s impact on the customer, the next process step, process objective or bottom line. The extent of the problem is defined, and any bounds or constraints on the fix are applied. Typically, actions act as bandages, and they are removed or altered when the permanent root cause is known and corrective actions are implemented.

Containment actions must be verified for effectiveness and must not create any more adverse outcomes. Containment actions typically add cost to the process and, therefore, add to the urgency to find and execute permanent process changes. The following examples illustrate how containment is used.

Example 1: incorrect bar codes

A manufacturer makes a product for the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the automotive industry. The customer has received multiple parts shipments with incorrect bar-coded labels.

The nonconformance (wrong part or label) instantly has an effect on the customer by causing assembly line shutdowns and delays. The problem must be contained to allow the customer to continue running production and the manufacturer to continue shipping parts, while the root cause is investigated by the manufacturer’s operations team.

Containment actions: To immediately control the effect of the nonconformance on the customer, the issue’s scope is defined, and all labeled in-house finished goods related to the problem (that is, the same part number, family and labeling process) are identified, quarantined and inspected before further release to the customer or use in the customer’s production. In addition:

  • All in-transit (to customer and from the supplier) goods are placed on hold and completely inspected.
  • All finished goods at the customer location are placed on hold and completely inspected by the manufacturer.
  • New shipments are inspected with a barcode reader for proper labeling, or they are manually labeled.

As the operations team begins the preliminary investigation of the nonconformance and potential root causes, additional containment actions to address potential root causes may be implemented. For instance:

New labeling software:
  • A temporary return to a previous revision of the labeling printing system with a history of nonconformance-free labeling. The previous version was slower to print and could not produce colors/graphics on the label.
  • All bills of materials (relating part numbers to labeling) are verified by the production department. This process is slow and tedious, requires extra help and has room for manual errors.
Parts are misidentified in manufacturing or by the supplier prior to labeling:

  • An added verification (by the department manager or in incoming inspection) of the correct part number is made for each lot prior to labeling. This adds cost and time to the process and is not a total fix.

With these and other root causes identified, the team can now move into the problem-solving and process-improvement phase to identify and implement permanent solutions.

Example 2: molding process

A product design and manufacturing organization produces a custom-designed product from expensive purchased material. During the last several months, the molding process’s yield dropped dramatically, resulting in significant expense to the company.

The negative change in yield has an instant impact on the customer, causing significant, unexpected delays. The problem must be contained to prevent a dramatic negative impact on the organization’s financial performance, and customer shipments must be maintained. Therefore, production operations must continue while the organization team investigates the problem.

As the team conducts the preliminary investigation of the nonconformance and identifies potential root causes, containment actions may be implemented. Two potential root causes and containment actions relate to:

New tooling/new process:
  • Returning temporarily to a previous tooling version with a history of nonconformance-free parts. The old tooling version was more costly and production was less timely.
  • Reverting to previous-version process parameters (pressure, temperature) in the molding operation. New parameters were altered for speed at the expense of yield.
  • Verifying all set ups by a supervisor prior to molding each lot. This adds cost and time.

Supplier’s material quality problems:

  • Limit production in the short term to lots of material with higher-yield test results if material is available.
  • Run production from a different supplier or different material. Higher costs and lengthy customer-approval process is involved.

With these and other root causes identified, the team can now move into the problem-solving and process-improvement phase to identify and implement permanent solutions.

Integrating objectives

These two examples suggest it is possible to integrate containment with DMAIC to create a single problem-solving and process-improvement model.4

You should first ask whether a short-term fix is desirable and possible. The answer to this question results in two possible courses of action. If the answer is:

  1. Yes, then containment action needs to be followed by problem-solving and, possibly, process-improvement work to create a permanent fix.
  2. No, then the process-improvement and problem-solving work is initiated.

Figure 1 summarizes this thought process. Remember, too, that the containment work is guided by the DMAIC framework:

  • Define the issue.
  • Measure the short-term severity of the issue.
  • Analyze the problems’ symptoms.
  • Improve by creating short-term fixes to mitigate the problem.
  • Put controls in place to ensure the fix holds until a permanent solution can be found.

The result is a common framework that will result in short-term fixes when needed and permanent solutions.

Figure 1

Critical success factors

Much has been learned about what makes for successful containment action. The following critical success factors can be helpful in developing and implementing effective containment strategies for critical issues.

  • Don’t be a "Temporary McNulty" (see the sidebar). Have a plan for getting the permanent fix identified and in place because containment solutions are often expensive.
  • Understand the impact of the problem. Effective containment, like effective problem solving, requires a thorough understanding of the effect and scope of the problem. Without well-developed knowledge of the problem’s impacts, containment actions may be insufficient (not protecting against the correct impact or all impacts) or inefficient (over protecting and costly). 
  • Include the VOC. The process of selecting and executing containment actions requires informed decision making to understand the impacts and the choices from a portfolio of potential containment actions. Including the VOC in the analysis and decision process will help ensure effectiveness with the customer.
  • Document to stay organized. Document and track all containment considerations (scope and impacts) and actions (planned and executed). Documentation should include responsibility, dates, cost, verification data, results of tests or inspections and customer input. 
  • Trust, but verify. Be sure the fix actually works. By their nature, containment actions are executed with urgency, and a common mistake is to assume effectiveness. Containment actions (like permanent corrective actions) must be verified with data to ensure their intended impacts and to prevent adverse impacts. Beware of any additional problems the containment may be creating and take appropriate action.
  • Remove containment actions. After permanent actions are in place and the problem is resolved, temporary containment measures need to be altered or removed. It is not uncommon to observe processes with several outdated and costly containment steps as remnants from earlier problem-solving activities. Documentation of containment activities during the problem’s early firefighting stages can help deconstruct the containment actions at the termination of the problem-solving process.

Temporary McNulty

Ronald Snee’s father founded and operated a milk and ice cream company known as Snee Dairy in Washington, PA. The senior Snee referred to one of his service suppliers as "Temporary McNulty" because McNulty never had time to permanently fix a problem. He was always busy and would put in a temporary fix to "keep things running." McNulty promised to return later to fix the problem permanently.

As you might surmise, McNulty rarely returned to create the permanent fix. Thus, the senior Snee was forever dealing with inefficient and costly fixes McNulty put in place. Indeed, temporary fixes can be used when needed, but we are not suggesting that the modus operandi of Temporary McNulty be followed.

—R.D.S and E.C.G.

Short term enhances long term

Jack Welch, retired CEO of General Electric, said, "You can’t grow long term if you can’t eat short term. Anybody can manage short. Anybody can manage long. Balancing those two things is what management is."5

This admonishment reminds us that problem-solving and process-improvement work must enable the organization to deal with both types of needs with a single framework.

To have two different approaches—depending on whether short-term fixes are needed—adds unneeded complexity and inefficiencies. The DMAIC improvement framework, integrated with containment actions, helps an organization avoid this problem.


  1. Ronald D. Snee and Roger Hoerl, Leading Six Sigma—A Step by Step Guide Based on the Experience With General Electric and Other Six Sigma Companies, FT Prentice Hall, 2003.
  2. Ronald D. Snee and Roger Hoerl, Six Sigma Beyond the Factory Floor: Deployment Strategies for Financial Services, Health Care and the Rest of the Real Economy, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
  3. W. H. Moore, Problem Solving, the Disciplines, the Processes, the Tools, Ford Motor Co., 1995.
  4. Ronald D. Snee, "Adopt DMAIC: Step One to Making Improvement Part of the Way We Work," Quality Progress, September 2007, pp. 52-53.
  5. John A. Byrne, "A Close-up Look at How America’s No. 1 Manager Runs GE," Business Week, June 8, 1998, pp. 90-112.

Ronald D. Snee is president of Snee Associates LLC in Newark, DE. He has a doctorate in applied and mathematical statistics from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Snee has received the ASQ Shewhart and Grant medals, is an ASQ fellow and is an Academician in the International Academy for Quality.

Edgar C. Gardner is the director of quality at Jarden Corp’s Leisure and Entertainment Group in Erlanger, KY. Gardner has a master’s degree in management from Willamette University in Salem, OR, and is a certified Master Black Belt.

Ron and Edgar provide an excellent perspective for short-term minimization of disruption in current processes. The examples here are from manufacturing. Our experience is within the service and health environment. The Modular kaizen approach using the DMAIC process is similar to Ron and Edgar's approach, although it tracks more closely to the Measure, Analyze and Improve steps of the original model. See an article on DMAIC for modular kaizen at the PEX network site for more information.
--Grace Duffy, 12-16-2011

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