An Eye For Design

DFSS fosters breakthrough innovation, cuts costs

by Brandon Cole

Six Sigma often comes under scrutiny because some organization leaders believe it stifles innovation. In a BusinessWeek article a few years ago, 3M CEO George Buckley said, "Perhaps one of the mistakes that we made as a company—it’s one of the dangers of Six Sigma—is that when you value sameness more than you value creativity, I think you potentially undermine the heart and soul of a company like 3M."1

One fundamental misconception companies using Six Sigma often have is that it only focuses on process improvement. The design for Six Sigma (DFSS) approach to quality—which uses proven quality tools—focuses on designing products and processes. This method can be implemented as an invaluable approach, even in heavily R&D-focused industries, by ensuring the product adds significant value to the customer.

DFSS provides a systematic approach to obtaining the voice of the customer (VOC), which is used to develop critical to quality (CTQ) elements. By eliminating wasteful rework and ensuring the final product meets customer needs while minimizing design, manufacturing and other costs typically overlooked in design, using DFSS can reduce R&D costs.

When first using this approach, focus on the simple, powerful tools. These methods include VOC, quality function deployment (QFD), failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) and piloting (see Table 1).

Table 1

R&D organizations should always strive to fill a customer want or need. The simplest way to identify needs is to work directly with customers. This provides the opportunity to not only discuss satisfaction or dissatisfaction with current products or services, but also to identify gaps on which R&D can focus. After VOC is obtained, it should be translated into CTQ elements. For example, let’s say customer feedback reflected a need for less expensive product lines. This might be translated into CTQ elements such as using inexpensive materials or reducing the number of features.

After deriving the CTQ elements, use QFD and FMEA to reduce design, manufacturing and other costs while minimizing failures. The power of creating a QFD process lies in the ability to clearly articulate relationships between customer and technical requirements. This helps reduce wasteful prototype creations or testing. It also helps ensure high priority features are integrated into final designs. FMEA supports the development of a robust product or service, which minimizes the likelihood of dramatic defects or failures in production and the customer use.

In some R&D environments, Six Sigma is viewed negatively. If used correctly, however, DFSS can help maximize R&D dollars by proactively integrating the needs of all internal stakeholders, providing an opportunity for candid feedback from customers and suppliers, and assisting in reducing wasteful R&D spending that does not meet customer needs.

In 2009, General Electric Co. (GE) spent $5.2 billion on R&D.2 The company’s website states, "Six Sigma has changed the DNA of GE—it is now the way we work—in everything we do and in every product we design."3

To further exemplify GE’s commitment to the Six Sigma approach, GE Healthcare published an article that states, "In developing the new Performix Pro X-ray tube, GE started with the CTQ applications requirements of CT customers and utilized Six Sigma methodology to ensure that the X-ray tube was designed to provide valuable clinical performance."4

As a result of this approach, the final product included additional power, higher resolution and increased throughput capabilities, while also reducing the patient dose.

As quality professionals, we understand the impact of identifying defects and waste early in the process. It is time we start focusing on designing these cost savings directly into every product and service.


  1. Brian Hindo, "At 3M, A Struggle Between Efficiency and Creativity: How CEO George Buckley is Managing the Yin and Yang of Discipline and Imagination, BusinessWeek, June 11, 2007.
  2. General Electric (GE) Co., fact sheet, www.ge.com/company/factsheets/corporate.html.
  3. GE, "What is Six Sigma? The Roadmap to Customer Impact," www.ge.com/sixsigma/SixSigma.pdf.
  4. Claire Arnott, "The Power to Perform: How the Performix Pro Tube Makes Volumetric CT a Reality," www.gehealthcare.com/usen/ct/docs/arnott.pdf.

Brandon Cole is the head of performance excellence at Long Island Jewish Hospital in New Hyde Park, NY. He earned a master’s degree in manufacturing management from the Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Cole is a member of ASQ.

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