Is Six Sigma an Enemy of Design?

A while ago I worked with a colleague that was a huge fan of Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a set of statistical and analytical tools use to measure and track the efficiency of a business or operations. My colleague was fanatical in improving the quality control of the organization and introduced all kinds of Six Sigma control points, or “gates” into the development process. He succeeded in creating a firmer structure in the process, but unfortunately, this new system created a lot of drag in the small organization.
Inevitability, he approached me and proposed for it to be applied to the design process.
Believe me, I fought tooth and nail. After studying the Six Sigma process, I point blank said: “There was no way any of my designers are going to be judged on the quality and success of a design based on how many sketches or iterations we did before we deliver it.” In this case efficiency would mean limiting or striving to use as little sketch or design iterations as possible to get to a design solution. I firmly believe that design and designers could never be managed in such a calculated manner.
Sara Beckman, in a discussion with Chuck Jones, vice president for global consumer design at Whirlpool, explains why that may be so.

Design thinkers, he says, are like quantum physicists, able to consider a world in which anything — like traveling at the speed of light — is theoretically possible. But a majority of people, including the Six Sigma advocates in most corporations, think more like Newtonian physicists — focused on measurement along three well-defined dimensions.

These days, I am starting to see the value of Six Sigma in delivering a completed product. Companies and brands competing in ultra-competitive environments need such systems to make sure the product is delivered well, and I agree with Sara that Design Process/Thinking has to find a way to work with a Six Sigma process.
While one cannot be used to drive the other, they can compliment each other. Design Thinking coming up front to identify and create the propositions, Six Sigmar used to deliver it.
Opposites do attract, no?
Via: Tim Brown

12 Comments
  • Glen Lipka

    September 24, 2009 at 1:19 am Reply

    They used a variety of Six-Sigma (DACI) at Intuit. It was a ridiculous process. It promoted consensus and committee thinking with lots of votes. Decisions were made by people who had no training in the domain. The designs always lost in A/B tests. So I decided to just design collaboratively and get it done in my own way. (A.K.A Secret design sessions) Those designs always won in A/B tests.
    The opposite of Six-Sigma is not “disorganized mess”.
    That experience with Intuit soured me permanently on those “factory” methodologies.

  • Tim Fife

    September 24, 2009 at 9:04 pm Reply

    DT, great point you’ve made here. The problem with Six-Sigma (as with TQM and the like), is that it finds its origins in manufacturing, where every process comes at a cost. In human-based systems, such as design, individual processes do not have consistent costs – one sketch may prove to be infinitely more valuable than the one immediately preceding it – and cannot be measured with such a tool. The contingent problem then, is how to measure the value of the design process in such a way that shows that work is being done effectively. This is indicative of the lack of understand between the different types of ‘work’ that go on in a business. Analysts like to measure value, designers like to make value. What we need is the appropriate tools that allow designers to measure their own value.

  • Todd

    September 25, 2009 at 1:14 am Reply

    Working as a design (mechanical) engineer in the automotive industry, I had a lot of experience with Six Sigma. There were some benefits to applying it to manufacturing systems, but it didn’t work so well for enhancing the creative processes essential to get out of a corner.
    I like Tim’s observation that ” Analysts like to measure value, designers like to make value.” I want to remind everyone that ultimately it is the customer who decides what value is.

  • ruix.z

    September 25, 2009 at 3:11 am Reply

    Being to designer-ish/ engineer-ish might lead to an oversight and this seems to be such a case.
    In design, we assume all designs are pretty much radical, but if we look deeper, we would come to realize the changes we’re doing are incremental changes – This is where Six Sigma would come in useful to reduce faulty outputs, maximizing efficiency and reducing wastage.
    Designers should never be only seen as creating innovative/ aesthetically appealing products, but we instead leverage on available six sigma production methodologies by embracing them and incorporating it in the later stages of design.
    **Companies do not profit when production lines ain’t efficient!!**

  • Michael Plishka

    September 25, 2009 at 4:46 am Reply

    I think the problem is that the DMAIC type of Six Sigma is used for new products and it doesn’t really work. There are Design for Six Sigma processes that are more geared towards new products such as IDOV and DMADV. There is an interesting map here that tries to show the product design/development process in Six Sigma lingo: http://www.triz-journal.com/archives/2002/02/a/01_fig1.pdf
    However, even these approaches aren’t good at providing tools on the front end of a project. They really are not the best at the wholistic process of folding together customer needs (often unarticulated and thus not present in other products trying to meet those needs) with innovative designs that truly delight.
    There are many implied assumptions in Six Sigma, assumptions that drive the predictability of product design/develpment. Unfortunately, unless one is willing to ignore some of these assumptions on the front end, truly innovative designs probably aren’t going to happen.
    That said, there are good reminders in the Six Sigma processes as to how the overall design process should be both iterative and dialogical.

  • Sam Ladner

    September 25, 2009 at 8:23 pm Reply

    DT, this is a great post. I think you should go further with it! Sara Beckman hit the nail on the head with her comment that designers are quantum and six sigmas are Newtonian.
    I would suggest that in the early stages of designing anything – experiences, services, or organizations – one should embrace the “interpretivist” paradigm of qualitative research. At the latter stages, when six sigma is appropriate, one should embrace the empirical or positivist paradigm. That is when incremental improvements can be wrung out of the process.
    But I find little value in reducing design to wringing out incremental improvements. Radical innovation does not work that way.

  • DT

    September 28, 2009 at 10:47 pm Reply

    Hi All, very sorry for the late reply! Let me try to reply to each of you one by one, but regardless thank you for taking the time to reply.
    @Glen: Yes sadly I sympathize with you. But we should consider the strengths of a design process and one like Six Sigma. The problem is that design needs to be strong and be credible enough to have as much clout as Six Sigma. I’m happy to see that with Design Thinking we might have a better foot hold in organizational processes.
    @Tim (and @Todd): Excellent point. How do we then ensure that our designs are able to measure up? This measurement of a design’s success is one of the more hotly debated or even researched topics out there. It is an extremely difficult discussion and I do not have a straight answer, however with a structured research process and good user testing we can gauge a confidence level for a design to go to market.
    However the issue is not what types of tests we can come up with, and I’m sure we can come up with many. The issue here is a six sigma process basically looks over its shoulder at a repetitive process and improves it. For design, however, it is a predictive process and as such there is no measurement that gives a 100% accurate measure that a design will be a success in the market.

  • DT

    September 28, 2009 at 11:05 pm Reply

    @ruix.z: Thank you for your comment. Indeed, companies rely on efficient production lines to survive, and hence the objective of this article is to ensure both processes work together. But expand on your point of “incremental innovation”, to say that the reality of the bulk of Industrial Design is such work.
    @Michael: Thanks for the link, and a good discussion on how Six Sigma and Design process can work together.
    @sam: Great descriptors, perhaps I may add, for the “interpretivist” paradigm of qualitative research vs. the empirical or positivist paradigm is really about an informative vs evaluative data. Design requires informative data to help guide us along, where as Six Sigma evaluates results looking backwards for improvement. I’m no expert in Six Sigma, but perhaps the simple way I look at this is perhaps the best way, no?

  • Dan Walker

    October 2, 2009 at 2:55 am Reply

    Six Sigma is actually a philosophy that I believe can be summed up in the following statement. “If the customer is not writing checks for it, do not do it.” All quality and process improvement systems drive toward this basic thought. The problem with some applications and practitioners of six sigma is that they seem to feel that tool use is an end unto itself. It is like a carpenter that feels compelled to use all tools in the tool box for every project. If you need to cut a 2X4 in half you need a saw not a hammer, screw driver, drill, etc also. Keep in mind that if your goal is efficiency there is no better place to start than to identify what the customer wants to pay for and focus on that.

  • DT

    October 2, 2009 at 5:41 pm Reply

    @Dan: Perfect analogy, there is a minimum size or critical project mass before 6 Sigma is needed. The problem I had was our projects were just too small for all the tools required.

  • Dan Walker

    October 2, 2009 at 10:22 pm Reply

    Thanks for the comments. People ask me, “How many projects have you done since becoming a black belt?” My response is always the same. I look them in the eye and say very seriously, “all of them!” For me, being a Six Sigma practitioner is not about filling 3 inch binders with reports, studies and powerpoint presentations. Being a Six Sigma practitioner is about driving positive change within an organization with a clear focus on what the customer wants to buy. I use all of my training in everything I touch.

  • Marcos Teles

    November 8, 2009 at 10:07 am Reply

    Six Sigma or Lean Thinking is to improve established process. Design Thinking is to create new products or services.
    Many of people are focused on the established processes. Theses represent the most part of a dally job of workers. Of course it depends of the industry/department we are talking about. In a car plant, for example, how many workers are focusing on creating in a new car? None, most of them are assembling the product. The only way to contribute “creatively” is by improving the process. That why Six Sigma (Lean) is so strong in corporate culture. Most part of work is repeated processes. Only few people are focusing on creating something new.
    On the other hand, design thinking contributes on areas such as like customer services, product design and marketing. These areas are focused on creating new things, on what is coming next.
    Unfortunately, most companies tend to emphasizes only one of them. The problem is when they want to apply the wrong approach to group of people. Once Design Thinking becomes as know as the Toyota way of work, the companies will start to embrace it. Both of them will life together It is near! It is coming soon.
    (sorry by any english mistake, i’m brazilian)

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