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Gimbal's Tip of the Week

The Lean Law Firm Blog

E216: How to use 'Define' of DMAIC to improve your legal practice

process improvement Jan 17, 2024
A yellow arrow sticks into the center of a black and white bullseye.

Last week, we introduced you to the Practice Accelerator Framework based on DMAIC, a five-step approach to streamlining legal and business processes in your firm. It’s the starting place for creating systems that deliver efficiency without overwhelm.

As a refresher, we like to think about DMAIC this way:

  • Define: what does the client want or need?
  • Measure: how do we work now to get that result?
  • Analyze: why do we do it that way?
  • Improve: how can we do it better?
  • Control: is our new process delivering what the client wants and are we following it?

Your Tip: To be truly efficient and effective, you must deliver value. And that value is defined by the client.

Our approach starts (Define) and ends (Control) with what the client wants. This way, what we do is always focused on delivering true value. 

Now, the notion of “client” can get confusing because it's not always the external, fee-paying client. In Lean, your "client" is the next person in the process—the person you pass your work along to.

If you’re a conflicts clerk, the requesting partner is your client. If you’re an in-house attorney, your client could be someone in one of your business units. If you’re an associate or partner in private practice, your client could be your external client, or it could be another lawyer in your firm or even opposing counsel. 

Each client decides what's value and what's waste. Your work adds value only when:

  • it brings the matter closer to the final product desired by the client,
  • your client wants it and is willing to pay for it, and
  • it’s done right the very first time.

Everything else is a waste. 

When you're improving a legal or business process, you want your new process to add more value without as much waste. You can learn more about value and waste in our guide: 8 Ways You're Losing Time & Money in Your Practice


In the Define phase of DMAIC, you are setting out the goals and boundaries of your project. To do that, you must accomplish three main things. 

1. Understand your client’s needs and requirements. 

That is, you have to answer the question: what does the client want? Talk to your client and listen carefully to the answers.

2. Create your project charter. 

The charter sets the scope of your improvement project. In it, you establish the boundaries of your enquiry, state the business case for your project, identify some key metrics for the process as it currently exists, and designate the members of the project team. Your charter will guide you and your team for the duration of the project. 

3. Create a really high-level picture of the process you want to look at. 

To do this, we use a process grid, often called SIPOC. SIPOC stands for Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs and Clients, all in the context of the identified process. It is a tool that provides a high-level view of a process, capturing the most critical information and helping draw process boundaries clearly...It’s the REALLY big picture. 

Because Lean is client-focused, we recommend you start filling in the process grid from the client end and working backwards. 

  • Who are the clients of your process? Remember to include anyone who receives an output of your process.
  • The outputs are the specific documents or services those identified clients need. A completed conflict check. A non-disclosure agreement. A will. An invoice.
  • Inputs are all the things you need to make the process work. Information from your client or opposing counsel. A completed form. A due diligence report. The court’s decision on your motion.
  • Finally, the suppliers are those who provide you the inputs. They could be clients, opposing counsel, the courts, other professionals like bankers or accountants, even the land titles office if you’re doing a real estate transaction. 

The result will be a snapshot of your process. Here's one we prepared for an Equal Employment Opportunities matter. 

By now you should have a clear, albeit high-level, picture of your process. You know its start and end points, you know your own objectives for improving it, and most importantly, you know what your client wants or needs from it.

Now, you’re ready to move to the Measure phase. Join us for the next post in the series, next week as we dig in. 

If you’re ready to start improving your own practice, apply to Practice Accelerator Coaching. You’ll join an engaged cohort of lawyers and law firm owners building more efficient and profitable practices. Learn more and join us here 

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