By Al Landers
“When do you use a SIPOC?” I asked the room. The lighthearted answer came back in unison …”Always”. Absolutely, the Black Belt class was right…after all, this was the about the 20th time I’d asked the question that week. Each time you have a project regardless of how big it is do a SIPOC. I don’t care if it’s a project reducing the cycle time for invoices, scrap reduction, optimizing a product line, a Kaizen event or even a 5s effort — do a SIPOC. It’s the simple process map that identifies the Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, and the Customer.
A SIPOC is one of those tools I emphasize during training or when I’m with a client. It’s something I focus on each and every time I train, regardless of the level. During a typical class we may spend as much as two hours doing one for the active projects in the training session. Everyone will come away with a SIPOC map of his or her project. My approach is to specifically focus (read take the necessary time) on several tools that are especially useful among the ever-bulging “toolbox” of Lean Six Sigma methods. Number one on my list is the SIPOC or COPIS or POCIS or… well, you can guess where this is going.
The fun you can have with a word scramble of this useful mapping tool comes from the approach a team would take to develop the SIPOC for their project. The idea is to start with the current Process – the perspective “P” — for the POCIS or “C” — the Customer perspective — for the COPIS. Then, there is SIPOC, which is the letters arranged in the order in which a process usually unfolds. There are lots of opinions on the importance of where to start. I think partly derived from the perspective of the person facilitating the SIPOC. Sales and marketing like to start with the customer, while the technical folks like to start with the process. If the SIPOC is done thoroughly, I’m not sure it matters all that much. Best advice on this one? Start where it’s easiest. The hardest part of a SIPOC is to get going.
People who know me know that I’m not wild about rigid prescriptions on how to do something. I like to be flexible and take advantage of different approaches. On the other hand, I don’t like wasting time, so I’ll suggest a few things that seem trivial but really help. First, use some type of post-it note and do it by hand. In other words, don’t rush to get it into an electronic format. There is something about having yellow stickies on a wall. You can see the process, expand it etc. It’s easy to move them around and change things. You will get brainstorming and better discussions. Second, use a Sharpie or a black bold marker and print clearly. It will help teammates see the steps and prevent too much information going on the post-it note. Finally, take a digital photo of the SIPOC. Right away. The black marker helps you to read the detail in the photo. You will have a record of the SIPOC before the wall gives up the notes in a rainfall of yellow!
Start with the process. I know you can start with the customer. I say it in training, and even encourage folks to try it both ways, but 90% of the time it works best to start with the process. After all, it’s about process improvement. How many process steps? Now that I’m a consultant full time, the answer is that “it depends”. A better answer is six steps. Why six? It’s an even number greater than five and less than seven. It works. It’s a compromise between too much detail and getting bogged down from so high a perspective that it’s a problem definition and not a process map. How high of a perspective should you take? Great question. It depends. A better answer is a level where six process steps make sense. I know that sounds like circular reasoning, but don’t overthink it. A SIPOC should be simple and represent an overview or the process. The process needs to be at a level where everyone says: “Yup…that’s what we do”.
Another trick is to start with the simple “ready, aim, fire” approach to the process, three basic steps that everyone can agree on. Fill a few other key ones and you have your process. If you end up with only a few steps, work upstream once and downstream once and see where you end up. If you end up with too many, try to combine some. It’s a high level map. Save the details for another tool.
What’s coming out of the end of the process? The entity. It’s what you are working on. Is it a final material, an intermediate product or a piece of information? Identifying the outputs of the process is probably the easiest step in the SIPOC. Identify any “secondary” outputs like samples for testing or regulatory information that may go to any inside or outside group or person. What is needed before the output continues downstream or before it goes to the customers? In this case more is better. Also remember that we are talking about the overall outputs of the process rather than outputs from a specific step.
These are the “global” inputs to the overall process. These aren’t the individual inputs to each process step. This is one of the mistakes I see teams make. They try to match up an input to one of the process steps. We’ll do that when we get to an Input/output map or detail it out in a Value Stream Map. These are all of the key inputs for the overall process. Questions to ask are: What drives the process? What do others need downstream? What are the ingredients?
The suppliers for the process can cause some confusion. It’s easy if you have a real supplier for an important raw material in the inputs column. A vendor supplying key technical information about their equipment is a supplier. On the other hand, is a subject matter expert (SME) providing key information to a supplier or an input? It depends. It really depends on how involved the SME is in the process. If the information the SME is providing is used on an ongoing basis with the team or if there are specific quality or regulatory information, then consider the SME an input. As long as the SME is recognized as an important contributor to the project, it probably won’t make a great deal of difference. A SIPOC is dynamic. Try it one-way and change it if it makes sense.
We don’t have to start with the customer. I said it. I recognize I may get an angry reply from a Marketing manager who has had too many Red Bulls. We will never forget the customer. We can’t and we learned that the hard way. But, we also need to recognize that there are internal customers that we need to bring to our side or at least we need to understand the necessary level of involvement. An internal customer that wasn’t included on the planning or updated with what changes may occur can cause havoc. Many can kill the project with a well intentioned but deadly memo or conversation with an organizational leader. The customer may never see the results of the improved process. The outside customers are easy to recognize. Check the name on the invoice. Maybe not so much is the assistant plant manager or the finance department that has a stake in the process and didn’t show up on the meeting minutes. Your SIPOC is the key tool for avoiding the mistake of missing these key customers on your project. Always err on the side of too many entries on the customer column. Make sure there are lots of internal customers.
The beauty of a SIPOC is that it also provides some of the initial input into several of other important tools we use in Process Improvement. The outputs of a SIPOC should be the high-level customer requirements. They will be better defined by drilling down using a customer requirements tree. The inputs should feed into an input/output diagram and provide some key fodder for a more extensive brainstorming session on key inputs into the process. Like most processes good stuff in produces good stuff out.
One of the side benefits of a SIPOC that shouldn’t be underestimated is the team building aspect. In most cases if you are doing a SIPOC on a project it’s a new project with a new team. The development of one gives the team the first real opportunity to work through some of the typical issues new teams face. It naturally provides a way for the team to understand the scope of the project and to see how their expertise fits in the project and better define their roles. More on this in a future blog.
So what should we call it? Let’s Google it. How about POCIS? Not so good. It’s certainly not Polar Organic Chemical Integrative Samplers. But the POCIS we’re interested comes up on page 2. Didn’t even make the front page. It might not be the best acronym to use in this case. Next, let focus on the customer and use COPIS. Yes…page one and second on the list next to “The Council of Professors of Instructional Supervisions”. Not bad. Finally if we Google SIPOC, not only do we get page 1,but the whole page is dedicated to the Lean Sigma definition, including a Wikipedia reference. If Wikipedia recognizes SIPOC (sometimes called COPIS) then it’s settled. SIPOC.
When do you use a SIPOC in your process improvement project? Always!!! And also remember, just cause we’re having fun, doesn’t mean we’re not taking the job seriously!
If you would like to request a listening session for your business, you can contact me, Al Landers, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Let's Talk