Six Sigma and Design Thinking

September 10, 2009 — 22 Comments

Sara Beckman of the Haas Business School has written a great article in the New York Times about Six Sigma and design thinking called Welcoming the New, Improving the Old. She talks with Chuck Jones of Whirlpool who gives a lovely analogy of design thinkers as quantum physicists and everyone else (including the Six Sigma crowd) as Newtonian physicists. Multiple possibilities versus defined measurement.

Sara makes the argument that businesses need to learn to build bridges between these two approaches. I have to admit that for a long time I was highly skeptical of design thinking’s ability to operate in a Six Sigma environment and I was once quoted in the Economist as saying that it was toxic to innovation.

I don’t think that anymore. Having spent more time studying companies like Toyota I have realized that high quality (the goal of Six Sigma) is a great platform for new ideas (the goal of design thinking). Similarly, as Chuck Jones implies, Six Sigma can help new ideas get better faster. Having been involved in several first mover products at IDEO I can attest to the fact that very rarely is that first iteration the best possible product in terms of quality or functionality.

Perhaps we should think of design thinking and Six Sigma being part of a cycle, each feeding the other to create new and improved products, services and experiences. Of course the biggest challenge will be to build business cultures that are agile enough to incorporate both.

Tim Brown


22 responses to Six Sigma and Design Thinking

  1. Great post! I’m sorry for this impersonal connection, but unfortunately I misplaced your business card after we met at the DMI conference on design in business in San Francisco this June. At that time, I asked about doing a podcast interview for the Principled Innovation Blog and Podcast, and you suggested that we do it around your book, which I know is coming out soon.

    I’m hoping we can establish contact and find a time to connect for an interview. If you can have your assistant e-mail me (jeffpi1 at gmail dot com) that would be great. Thank you so much!

  2. Isn’t this essentially what Edward deBono posits in his three-stage thinking cycle? 1. Creative thinking to generate the maximum # of possibilities. 2. Critical thinking applying agreed-upon criteria to select which possibilities to pursue. 3. Constructive thinking to generate detailed plans for ensuring high quality and timely implementation.

  3. Having worked in a six sigma orientated company, and having undertaken the basic training myself, I feel that Six Sigma is an ideology that can limit innovation due to the way people want to avoid taking production risk. It makes it to easy for someone to say that ‘…it can’t be done because its doesn’t meet six sigma standards…’, instead of finding ways to solve the inherent failures in a particular method of production in the first place.
    My experience was that Six Sigma was used as the main reason to stop products being produced. Such products could not be developed to follow a particular design intent or use particular manufacturing techniques because six sigma production yield standards could not be achieved. Whilst this sounds like a sensible constraint that ensures quality in production ultimately saving money for company, it is very frustrating if actions are not taken to actually develop manufacturing standards to meet such rigid production yield constraints. Companies such as Apple actually educate their vendors and help them achieve the quality that companies such as Apple require, but when working in less proactive development environments such a standards can at times seem like barrier. If quality becomes your main driving mantra then standards such six sigma may become a less important metric to measure innovation success, and judge if a particular design should go ahead.

  4. The importance of setting off in the right direction first and then attending to analytics is captured by Russ Ackoff’s statement; “The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you get.”

  5. I used to bristle every time I heard “Total Quality Management” or “Six Sigma” not because of the ideas themselves, but because no one was taking the time to actually read the source materials.

    No doubt a good idea is needed, but measurable performance in definition, design, development and deployment is the only way to know you are not pissing into the wind.

    Qualities are what you are measuring. Quantities are the measurements themselves. Knowing what to measure is just as important as how you measure.

    It is what to measure that is the challenge. Knowing the the right lens to use and the right granularity of film and the correct exposure decides what you see. It doesn’t matter what you are doing or what phase of the process you are in.

    So we can come up with all kinds of techniques and all kinds of buzzwords to name them, but in the end if you don’t know how to measure your performance you are going to end up unproductive and poor.

  6. The relationship between the two types of process is very important and needs people who can bridge it.

    Just as Industrial Design claimed to bridge between industry and consumer, markets and necessarily business are maturing to the point where design strategist types bridge between old business (six sigma alone) and design thinking.

    In the context of the big brand domestic appliance manufacturer I work for I’m very interested in the place of metrics to support and manage creative competence.

    However I feel although a corporate creative competence does need to be managed it needs different kinds of values, and different kinds of metrics.

    It’s along the lines that old business craves clarity and decision but new business will need to also seek depth and vision. How do you measure depth? Or vision? Or purpose? Or cultural capital?

    I feel like these things require relationship, people within a corporation need to ‘feel’ something to be ‘on-board’, just as the consumer needs to ‘connect’ with something emotionally and experience it meaningfully. It’s like the designed product is a reflection of the design process, so in this new world we need new business that speaks in depth and vision.

  7. I am a recent graduate of Cal with no experience in design but I came across your blog after hearing about IDEO through a class on entrepreneurship to alleviate global poverty. As someone with somewhat of a blank slate regarding these matters, I do not see why these two concepts have to be in contention. Even after linking and reading multiple articles on the matter, I still think that they are both strengthened by working in tandem with one another. While reading the comments left by your other readers, I thought how it is so interesting to see how different experiences so vehemently shape our views on such matters. People become indoctrinated in one school of thought and are loathe to be more open minded. I suppose that will always be the silver lining of being young and inexperienced! I learned a lot from this one post even though the content was short. Thank you for that. I look forward to learning more from your blog. =)

  8. Bridging the worlds of Design Thinking and that of Six Sigma suggest that these are two very different universes that can work in tandem. Another approach is to think about a new world order in which integrating both of these worlds creates a new foundational framework for innovation and sustainability.
    It is as simple as thinking of them as two different shapes; the design thinking world- one which reflects the world of possibilities – (a sphere which can be populated with ideas and unconstrained thinking), the other, a linear framework, which brings these limitless possibilities down to executable probabilities.

  9. Being an industrial designer in a six-sigma environment was initially a challenge until I learned to communicate in the language of six sigma. which is quite different than having to quantifiy all your concepts in terms of six sigma or try and fit six sigma tools to the emotional side of concept generation. It is a valuable tool though for designing for understanding the critical x and significant y’s and making sure you have a design that fits the processes in which your product will be manufactured. I’m all sure as industrial designers we all use fishbone diagrams, and paredo analysis to some degree in solving design problems in a rational way. Concept generation is just another form of the DOE tool. The industrial designers tool set may have a different appearance than the traditional six sigma format but they do exist. I have no interest in doing tolerence loops for reproducability and repeatability, but having a sensitivity to what manufacturing engineers are trying to achieve in a mandated six sigma environment goes a long way in building a collaborative product development process instead of here’s my design make it fit, or we wont make it because it does not fit our process give me another design. It is my contention as industrial designers the more tools we have at our command the better we respond to both sides of the equasion; the emotional of understanding the consumer wants needs and frustrations; and the rational lets build a million and make lots of money; the better designers we will become.

  10. I recall one of IDEO’s own coining the adjusted “Lean Two Sigma” – the suggestion being that all the ideas focused on value creation are right in line with the philosophy of Design Thinking, but that depending on the application, the elimination of variability can even be counterproductive beyond a point from a human perspective.

  11. I am curious as to whether you would credit your original disdain for Six Sigma to a quantitative or qualitative estimation of the results of the methodology, or if it was at the time a gut call?

    I’m not being snarky: I think both answers are valid. I’m guessing there have been lots of data on Six Sigma for decades.

  12. Tim, I just had the opportunity to watch your TED video on Design Thinking.

    You did an excellent job of discussing the issue of scale regarding design.

    I have started a design council for my Canadian province to think about provincial scale design. However, I am seeing this will take time to catch on.

    One thing I have been thinking about is Human Centered Design. I think there needs to be an alternative way of thinking about design. I call it Human Based Design and Marshall McLuhan, Canadian media theorist, inspired it. Instead of thinking about human need, we are thinking about human extension. For example, what type of extension do I require as a skin to live in Canada? What type of extension do I require as a foot to travel in Canada? What type of extension do I require as an eye to visualize Canada? And so on. In summary, how do I extend based on my senses and my physiology to do more on more scales?

    It lead me to realize that we are more of an extension of the internet, than the internet is an extension of us.

  13. Daniel Christadoss November 1, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    I was recently involved in a project to design a new production line. I believe we used a mix of Design Thinking and Design for Six Sigma. An interesting fact here is that we did not go and get a black belt. We learnt the techniques as we progressed. We did use a lot of the techniques Tim Brown expounds as well as Deming statistical techniques to convince the system integrator of the need the make improvements. I strongly believe that the new line will hit the road running and produce a minimum yield of 95%. We read all the latest methodologies and incrementally improved on the system. I believe the key is to use what works for us rather than follow a cult. There is no magic bullet, it is continuous improvement all the way. Are we back to PDCA 🙂 Good old Deming knew what was good for us

  14. I think integration is possible. One is focus on productivity, the other on creating new things. In my opinion, companies tend to focus in one philosophy only. Maybe, because the leadership is not aware of the existence of both philosophy. A Six Sixma company gives so much emphasizes on this philosophy that lets behind other methodologies. Maybe the same happen in a Design Thinking company.
    I’ve seen that where I work. To answer the company needs for productivity and profitability, they choose Lean (six sigma) path. They are getting great results. But maybe they could be a step head if they started using design thinking together. They got some design thinking initiatives, but they limited only to the design department. On the other hand, the Lean got the corporate level.

    Please, let me know if a company that gets both philosophy in one environment? Any one know an example?

  15. Daniel Christadoss November 7, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Kindly look at the following link
    Also “Design for Six Sigma ” by Subhir Chowdury
    These may explain the tools already in place which may be close to a marriage between “Design Thinking” & Six Sigma
    It is said that Jack Welch said that had he known he would have started GE on DFSS rather than Six Sigma

  16. Hi again. There is a nice article at Fast Company about it. According to Roger Martin “Corporations are pushing analytical thinking so far that it’s become unproductive.”

  17. The idea of combining Six Sigma and Design Thinking methodologies into a circular process that enhances the first iteration of an idea and also inspires new ideas, is very strong. Your advocacy for this approach to innovation and business reminds me of concepts within Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind,” especially where he discusses the importance of both divergent (Design Thinking) and convergent (Six Sigma) procedures.

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  21. Tim, I have to say I appreciate your thoughts and insights. As someone who has lead lean and six sigma programs in multiple companies, what kills the program is the dogmatic approach and rigidity of those practicing “Six Sigma.” I recently had a MBB who couldn’t get past the fact that people weren’t doing regression equations for everything (exaggeration, but not by much). I believe the best programs merge many ideas, and work with the culture to achieve something special. We incorporated some of the concepts of design thinking years ago, but have farther to go in getting a true symbiotic relationship established. And thanks for coming to the realization that not all Lean or Six Sigma is bad. It is kind of like a Pit Bull. It all depends on the environment it is brought up in.

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