Six Sigma and Innovation – A Remarkable Duo

Six Sigma and Innovation: A Remarkable DuoEverybody in the business world wants their business to grow and be at par with its competitors. Nobody wants to be left behind. This is the reason why companies hire consultants and specialists to aid them on how they can improve specific areas or process of their business. The process of searching and identifying problems and solutions is not made by one man alone. Almost all companies do this using a team of knowledgeable professionals. A team with varied backgrounds most of the time creates conflict. While some believe in this, others disagree. The argument between innovation and Six Sigma is not far from being one of the conflicts.

Innovation in its general sense is simply to create something new or to introduce something different. This could either be to develop a product or to improve a process. But not all means of improving connotes being innovative. Although Six Sigma is clearly defined as the methodology that aims to eliminate defects by identifying probable root causes of the problem, innovation is different. The term is vague and has no specific definition, which may be the reason why people can not exactly differentiate the two. And for some people the idea of integrating Six Sigma in the innovation process will restrain some ideas. If we look at the picture as a whole, the goal is to innovate and Six Sigma is a method that will aid the process of identifying both problem causes and feasible solutions.

To have a better grasp as to how the best practices of innovation can be utilized to optimize a Six Sigma process, let us go with the step-by-step process using the Six Sigma tools.  Six Sigma uses several tools depending on what you want to identify and what you want to come up with. Most commonly used tools are:

  • Root Cause Analysis (RCA)
  • Voice of the Customer (VOC)
  • Process Mapping (PM)
  • Quality Function Deployment (QFD)
  • Failure Mode Effects and Analysis (FMEA)
  • Value Engineering Analysis (VEA)
  • XY Matrix, TRIZ method (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving)
  • PUGH Matrix selection
  • Design of Experiment (DOE)
  • Robust Design and
  • Mistake Proofing

These specific Six Sigma methods can be improved using innovation’s best practices. Every effort to improve is an occasion to apply innovation skills and thinking. Here are a few example practices where we can incorporate Six Sigma (DMAIC) in an innovation process:

DEFINE – this phase involves identification and giving definition to problem root causes. With the use of the process and product analysis technique, one of innovation’s best practices, the fundamentals of CTQs and the XY Matrix can be easily identified and filtered. RCA is also useful to meet the requirements of the factors that are considered and make sure that the correct issues are concentrated on.  The House of Quality (HQ) basics can be illustrated to Value Engineering Analysis (VEA) metrics to shorten and minimize stream analysis.  Risk mitigation techniques can be easily identified with the help of concept identification.

Six Sigma and Innovation - A Remarkable Duo

MEASURE – the phase involves several Six Sigma statistical tools all used to measure current performance and to calculate final goal. Process and product analysis can be utilized to determine the restriction and performance feature of the structure to be measured. There are factors that cannot be easily measured. Identification of narrative strategies can be aided by the discipline of concept generation.

ANALYZE – this phase requires a lot of thinking and brainstorming. This activity identifies the system defects’ root causes. The phase also uses several Six Sigma tools. Analyzing parameter can be done with the use of (CTQ) Critical to Quality and (VEA) Value Engineering Analysis.

IMPROVE – after understanding the main defect, the process of identifying the method on how to eliminate or minimize defects start. Using the system of concept generation, identification of solution plan can be easily accomplished.

CONTROL – monitoring and making sure that the improve plan is strictly followed is under the Control phase. The innovation’s best practice can be put into place to avoid future breakdown and system collapses.

Regardless of the scale of innovation, whether it’s an incremental innovation, an advanced innovation or just a minor improvement, all these are just variety of value in developing solution generation. Innovation despite the pace and the scope is very important to a business which is trying to grow its core proficiency. Incremental innovation brings both long and short term benefits. Better margin contribution, increased revenue and market share, and extended product life are just few of the short term benefits of innovation. But what most organization wants are the long-term benefits. Since most of the techniques of the innovation process is engaged more in to creative thinking and does not require much of statistical analysis, most of the solutions generated provide short term effects. Using statistical analysis and technique of Six Sigma, the creative thinking of innovation can be paired with the thorough analysis of Six Sigma. With constant practice, innovation skills will be developed.

The faultlessness in the areas of innovation and Six Sigma does not guarantee the organization’s viability in the long run. Continuing success in the business involves the customer to be thrilled by unpredicted innovations. Surviving in a highly competitive market requires continuous innovation. Innovation is a product of creative action, not of analysis alone. While Six Sigma is more involved with numbers, wherein all ideas must be a product of meticulous analysis which is based on gathered data, innovation is different. Innovation focuses more on what would please the customer and what is not yet offered by the market. There were also instances wherein excessive concentration to thorough process restricts one from being creative. It is imperative that the team that will create solutions can balance both Six Sigma and innovation.

Not everyone is an advocate of Six Sigma. The well thought-out process and constant benchmarking may seem to be too firm but these are the traits that made Six Sigma successful. Innovation or even free thinking is not suppressed by Six Sigma. The process smoothens the progress. Many think that when you integrate Six Sigma with innovation the process will lose free and creative thinking. Totally incorrect! The one compliments the other with their unique process and characteristic. Innovation is more of a skill-based process while Six Sigma is knowledge-based. Combining skill with knowledge can bring out the best result. Several Six Sigma tools including the Cause and Effect diagram and the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) promote innovative thinking and team brainstorming. An efficient facilitator paired with a varied and creative team makes the ideal setting for new thoughts to materialize when searching for possible root causes or when determining probable solutions. After identifying an inventive solution, Six Sigma can be integrated to make the most of the solution’s effectiveness.

imagecredit:gfsbusiness & northbury

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Alex Orlov is an innovative entrepreneur on a mission to popularize the Six Sigma methodology by answering one simple question – What is Six Sigma? Currently compiling a list of Six Sigma certification authorities across the world – feel free to contribute.

Alex Orlov




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  1. Braden Kelley on April 12, 2012 at 10:23 am

    If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy my article on the DMAIC of Innovation from June 2011, available here on Innovation Excellence:

    Happy innovating!


  2. Shawn Boike on April 12, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    This was a good article and I’ve been part of it in both Auto and Aerospace industry. Another great benefit is the requiremtn to savetypically >$100K per year on a project prior to black belt. Getting there is a terrific way to bring newer employees into the realm of understanding the business, processes and asking why. Many times the means and data do not always have sound legs (principles) to stand on, its just the way its been done for decades.

  3. Adam Searcy on April 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Great post. It can sound counter-intuitive at times, but you do need a process for your innovation. It really boils down to the facilitator or PM along with the team to find the right balance for the project. Always an important discussion. Thanks.

  4. Peter Cook on April 14, 2012 at 7:55 am

    I’d agree with your last point, that all things, taken to extreme can be counter productive. Slavish adherence to continuous measurement and other 6 sigma principles can drive out the necessary conditions for innovation to flourish.

    It comes down to a mixture of structure and creativity – a related article may be found at


  5. Alex Orlov on April 14, 2012 at 10:18 am

    In my humble opinion Six Sigma itself is a brilliant innovation to process management, but I completely agree Mr. Cook that if taken to the extreme it’d become counter-productive. In the end of the day it’s not just about methodologies, tools, statistics, and book-smarts – it takes a great deal of intuition and common-sense.

    @Braden Kelley – thanks for the article – it’s a great piece!

  6. John Wolpert on April 15, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Seriously – Improvement is improvement…innovation is innovation. Keep them straight. Litmus test: an improver wants a reward. An innovator wants investment. Any company with an “innovation reward” program is mixing the two concepts.

    Why do we so wish to mislabel improvements with the term “innovation”? Improvement is fantastic all by itself. Most companies – I daresay all – really want happy, excited employees making cool, even “radical,” improvements. In the main, the only time most companies truly want innovation is when they are starting and when they are facing the clear and present danger of going out of business.

    Innovation means you are going to transform the core concept of what you think you are in business to do. When my company worked on the Octopus system in Hong Kong, we stared with a client that was a transit authority, and now it is a Bank. I’ll call that innovation. But on the way we worked on two other very important “I” words: Invention (the induction-based smart card that we used to implement a new way of paying for transit) and Improvement (people using the smart cards now moved through turnstiles faster…but they were still essentially doing the same thing they were doing before…just a lot faster). The innovation came when companies started accepting the transit cards for groceries and other goods…subsequently people started loading more value on the cards, and the transit authority started making significantly more money on float from the stored card value. Now their new-hires are bankers. When you have to hire a wholly different kind of employee base than you did before, I’ll say you have an innovation.

    This is not something you do every day, and it is not something you want every single employee spending all day working on. Improvement, yes. Innovation – true innovation – no.

    • Alex Orlov on April 15, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      I beg to disagree. Innovation can be part of improvement, and not just in my head, it appears:

      to introduce something new; make changes in anything established.
      1540–50; < Latin innovātus past participle of innovāre to renew, alter, equivalent to in- in-2 + novātus ( novā ( re ) to renew, verbal derivative of novus new + -tus past participle suffix)

  7. George Rathbun on April 16, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Alex, I would have to say that I agree right off the bat with your title. Both go hand-in-hand. This reminds me of a blog post I made several years ago – The Lean Innovation cycle – where I described continuous improvement as being an integral part of sucessful innovation.

  8. PM Hut on April 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for sharing. An excellent article on Six Sigma that you might be interested in writing (just suggesting) is why is Six Sigma perceived as inefficient from the skeptics. There’s a lot of criticism towards Six Sigma and whether it really works or not.

    Hope you’ll touch on this subject one day.

  9. Melina Ortiz on April 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Great argument against those that say that Six Sigma stifles innovation. Bravo.

  10. Lean Implementation on September 6, 2013 at 5:34 am

    Really I am Completely agree with the blog. the six sigma technique and the Innovation could really be the remarkable duo.If both techniques goes by taking hand in hand this could be more beneficial for the Business and to the quality of the Product.

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