The Last Word from the July/August 2005 issue of iSixSigma Magazine, entitled “Designing for Perfection: Six Stories of Innovation with Six Sigma.”

One of my pet peeves is when people refer to Six Sigma as a cost-cutting or productivity methodology. That definition tells only half of the story, focusing on the DMAIC improvement methodology and completely ignoring the method by which new products and services are identified, conceptualized and delivered – Design for Six Sigma (DFSS).

It’s easy to see why this happens. People equate Six Sigma with DMAIC because DMAIC is employed far more often. Companies may strive for continuous improvement, but they’re not as willing to take the leap to develop something entirely new. They apply DMAIC to problems and happily report the benefits attained. That’s what gets the attention, both within an industry and in the media.

So how does DFSS fit in when DMAIC is doing so much for companies by increasing productivity and improving existing products worldwide? It’s simple. Designing new products and processes that will delight customers leads to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty, generates higher profit margins, and even may elevate a company to a “market leadership” position.

Management guru Peter Drucker once noted, “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” That holds true in every business marketplace. But how can a company become recognized as a leader by both its customers and its competitors? The answer is found in a single, nuanced word: innovation.

Innovation is the act of introducing something new, whether it’s a simple idea or a complex solution. Innovation is “cutting edge,” the “latest thing.” When innovative products and services are introduced, a common reaction is, “Now why didn’t we think of that?” Take, for instance, 3M’s Post-it® notes. A simple idea, they allow people to attach reminders, to-do lists or schedules to a variety of surfaces, increasing the attention the notes receive.

At the other end of the spectrum are innovations like the GE Healthcare LightSpeed CT scanner, introduced in 2001. This diagnostic tool captures multiple images of a patient’s anatomy simultaneously, at a speed six times faster than traditional single-slice scanners. When speed is of the essence, being able to make a more conclusive diagnosis can make a life-saving difference. GE became a market leader in medical imaging not by incrementally improving their products, but by taking large, innovative steps using DFSS.

Innovation can happen sporadically – without the use of any formal methodology – and still result in business success and market leadership. But is that the way any of us want our companies to be run? Is that haphazard type of operation one that shareholders will appreciate? Developing a systematic way to launch new products and processes can help a company become a sustainable market leader.

So the next time someone boasts about their costsaving Six Sigma deployment, be sure to ask them why they’re not growing their revenue with Design for Six Sigma.

About the Author