Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Six Sigma in R&D. (Managers at Work)

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Six Sigma in R&D. (Managers at Work)

Article excerpt

As popularly used in industry, achieving a Six Sigma level of quality means limiting defective performance to 3.4 per million opportunities, which would be nearly defect-free. "Elimination of defects" has interesting implications for research and development, because R&D exists to create processes and products. R&D activities involve inquiry, analysis, synthesis, and other activities that naturally reshape and change as they proceed--and so naturally defy systematic improvement efforts. However, early results in some companies indicate that achieving Six Sigma performance in R&D is worth consideration.

On June 28, 2001, the Industrial Research Institute's Process Effectiveness Network (PEN) hosted a panel discussion, "Six Sigma and Design for Six Sigma in R&D Organizations," as part of an ongoing PEN project to investigate and assess the impact and benefits a Six Sigma initiative could have in an R&D environment. The panelists, taken together, had about 200 person-years of experience in R&D. This article reports the key points that emerged during the discussion and outlines some questions for further study.

Six Sigma Perspective

All members of the audience for this panel discussion were, of course, interested in Six Sigma in R&D; however, their familiarity with Six Sigma varied widely--from novices to "Black Belt" experts. Therefore, the panelists took time to explain three important Six Sigma points, namely that Six Sigma and Design for Six Sigma:

* Are philosophies--the core philosophies for defining problems in process-based performance.

* Are not the same--Six Sigma (SS) involves finding and fixing problems in existing processes whereas design for Six Sigma (DFSS) involves designing error-free processes after you realized that fixing the existing processes would not resolve your performance concerns.

* Are not tools--they are core organizational competencies.

Following this, the panelists explained that Six Sigma and Design for Six Sigma are implemented by applying tools and techniques within the bounds of the philosophy. The candidate tools and techniques, used in both, involve familiar things we saw in TQM, some new vocabulary, and critical process management and project selection activities. Techniques used in Six Sigma are listed on the next page.

Customer-centric goals and customer-focused metrics strongly drive the core Six Sigma philosophy that will, in the long run, be part of the way surviving firms operate. Rather than providing distinct competitive advantage, they will be prerequisites for competition.

Panelists emphasized that factors important to success in Six Sigma and Design for Six Sigma are no different from the important attributes of quality in other areas of business and manufacturing. From that perspective, they noted the most important factors of success in Six Sigma and Design for Six Sigma:

1. Commitment and leadership from the top of the organization.

2. Repeatable project selection and management processes involving rigorous project administration, commitment management, control of costs, schedules, changes, and production, as well as quality assurance and configuration management.

3. An understanding of the customer's value proposition, very early in the process.

4. Metrics to prove and track performance.

5. Learning and using a common language for improvement.

6. Providing and maintaining adequate funding for improvement efforts.

Among the foregoing points, panelists held that top-down leadership and culture were most important, and that tracking metrics, common language and adequate funding had more impact than panelists had seen in comparable TQM efforts. Finally, the panelists pointed out that in building a Six Sigma culture within an organization, it is important not only to start at the top but to start big (in depth and scope), not small. …

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