Operational Definitions Make Processes More Consistent

Posted by on Apr 26, 2012 in Lean Six Sigma | 0 comments

Operational definitions are defined as a clear description of what is to be observed and measured, such that different people taking or interpreting the data will do so consistently.  It answers the questions: “What do we mean by a defect?”  “A service?” “How do we measure a characteristic?”

Here are a few examples that occurred because there wasn’t an operational definition:

  • Recall the Mars Polar Orbiter that crashed onto the planet surface because a group of engineers had written procedures in English units (pounds-seconds) and the computer interpreted the data in metric units (newton-seconds).
  • Or think back to the Florida ballot recounts in the presidential election of 2000:  how consistently do you think people interpreted a “pregnant chad”?
  • Large account receivables due to different interpretations of “net 30” between the customer and the accounting department.
Having clear operational definitions would certainly have helped in these situations!  If things are unclear in your organization, maybe operational definitions would help.  Here are some things to consider when you develop your operational definition:
  • Different ways people interpret the same words.
  • Changes that might emerge that require special interpretation.
  • Events or observations that can fit under more than one grouping or that might be interpreted or measured several ways.
To develop your own operational definition:
  • Ask a team member to write a draft definition of the problem, defect, or measure.  Elements should include:  What are you trying to measure?  What the measure isn’t?  Basic definition of the measure.  How to take the measurement in detail.
  • Ask different team members to read the definition and try to shoot holes in it.  Is every word understandable?  Make revisions as needed.
  • If relevant, check the definition with customers.  Is it exactly the same as theirs?
  • Develop job aids if appropriate.
  • Have people who were not involved in developing the definition apply it and watch for problems and sources of confusion.
  • Finalize the definition and train the appropriate people in its use.
To be consistent, how you define and measure things is extremely important.  Don’t overlook the importance of having and using operational definitions!

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