The Story Starts

Witnessing the rise of the
U.S. quality movement and Six Sigma

by Jay Watson

My quality journey began 30 years ago while working as an instructor at Gateway Community College (GCC) in Phoenix. When a co-worker said the dean wanted to meet with me, I had no way of knowing it would be the start of a change for my career and profession.

During our meeting, the dean told me about a job opportunity with Mesa Community College (MCC), which had partnered with the Motorola Training and Education Center (MTEC). He recommended I join MCC as an expert to help teach its courses.

The MTEC director’s vision was to create a relationship with MCC in which Motorola would provide the technical knowledge for the courses and curriculum, and MCC would provide administrative support, such as facilities, schedules and instructors.

New school of thought

Thanks in part to the 1980 NBC documentary "If Japan Can … Why Can’t We?" managers and executive leaders at this time were intensifying their focus on quality.1 During the following decades, Phoenix-area organizations played important roles in the explosion of quality across many industries. For me, it seemed like a golden age to be a quality advocate.

At GCC, I enjoyed teaching working adults on technical math, production and inventory management, and operations management. I also facilitated a workshop designed for local AlliedSignal engineers in applied statistics: It was based on the methods of Genichi Taguchi, a developer of designs to improve quality and reduce costs—later known as the Taguchi methods.

My favorite workshop, "The Transformation of American Industry," was based on W. Edwards Deming’s works, and it led teams through process improvement projects in their organizations.

With a background in industrial engineering and quality control, I was able to coach project leaders and their teams on understanding process variables and problem-solving methods, and to introduce them to several quality tools, such as input-process-output diagrams, Pareto analysis, Ishikawa diagrams, process mapping and statistical control charts. For most of the students, these were new tools and concepts.

In the 1980s, people’s attitudes toward quality were changing. They started to embrace the concept of managing with data and controlling process inputs, not just monitoring outputs. Moving peoples’ thinking from defects per unit to defects per million opportunities also was a significant paradigm shift.

Design, manufacturing and industrial engineers began using Six Sigma concepts around this time as well. Their focus was on understanding the causes of variation and ultimately its impact on customer satisfaction. Executive leaders also changed their thinking: relying on preventive measures rather than reactive firefighting.

Soon after my meeting with GCC’s dean, I was hired by MCC. I still remember sitting around a small table with the other instructors deciding what courses we would teach and how we would develop a corporate training institute. MCC later became Motorola University, which still exists today and has five separate institutes. One is focused only on quality and Six Sigma.

When I started at MCC, the most popular course topics were total customer satisfaction, cycle-time management and, after it was added in the late 1980s, Six Sigma. I still teach leadership concepts from these fundamental courses today.

Three courses about managing with data were introduced, and each one progressively introduced statistical quality tools. This was years before the idea of a Six Sigma Green Belt and Black Belt existed.

During my time at MCC, Motorola was the largest private employer in Phoenix, and its partnership with the college brought a steady flow of students. One of the Motorola leaders in Phoenix eventually moved on to work at the corporate headquarters in Illinois. It was there that he and his staff later developed Six Sigma into one of the most popular approaches to achieving business excellence. The Motorola Six Sigma Research Institute was later established, and it demonstrated a growing interest in the method after employees and sponsorships joined from organizations such as IBM, Texas Instruments, Digital Equipment, Kodak and Asea Brown Boveri.

Branching out

I stayed at MCC for five years. After Motorola moved its semiconductor business to Austin, TX, MCC’s training business (and mine) was on the decline. But out of nowhere, a friend at Honeywell offered me a job that was essentially rewriting the organization’s Six Sigma training materials.

Honeywell’s program had been installed by a former Motorola employee who started his own Six Sigma academy in Scottsdale, AZ. My task was to replace Motorola’s Six Sigma examples with ones from Honeywell and introduce lean production concepts as well.

I was a fan of Richard J. Schonberger, an advocate of the just-in-time (JIT) approach and university professor. His book, Japanese Manufacturing Techniques,2 inspired me to create four quality programs at the University of Phoenix: world class manufacturing, JIT, cycle time reduction and the total quality management (TQM) professional certificate that used Joseph M. Juran’s writings as its core material.

I wanted to combine lean and Six Sigma methods and knew a good starting point would be using JIT concepts. Lean and Six Sigma methods have the same general purpose: providing the customer with the best possible quality, cost and delivery with the newest product attributes. While they have a lot of overlap, I found that people often disagree about when to use the methods. Author Michael L. George eventually effectively married lean and Six Sigma in his book Lean Six Sigma: Combining Six Sigma With Lean Speed.3

Despite Honeywell’s camps of lean or Six Sigma thinkers, I worked with its Master Black Belts (MBB) to create what would later be known as the Honeywell Operating System, a comprehensive approach to managing an integrated supply chain. Based on the Toyota Production System, this approach built on the use of Six Sigma and lean tools to eliminate variation and improve work processes on a rapid and continuous basis.

I worked with staff members at Honeywell’s production facility in Tempe, AZ, to create a process for completing three kaizen team events per week. Some results from these rapid-improvement events included a $2.1 million savings in inventory reductions, improving the overall shipping process cycle time 88% and a 5% total improvement to on-time-to-request dates.

In 2000, General Electric (GE) hired me on the recommendation of my friend who was a quality consultant. GE wanted to offer Six Sigma training to customers, and it formed an in-house consulting group that included some of America’s top MBBs.

At GE, I travelled the world for three years going on sales calls with one of the organization’s directors and often told the story of my quality journey.

My career has allowed me to be part of quality’s U.S. popularization and assist many organizations. Today, I continue to provide my experience in Six Sigma and work as a speaker. Or as I put it: I tell my quality stories.


  1. "If Japan Can … Why Can’t We?" Deming.org, http://tinyurl.com/ifjapancanwhycantwe.
  2. Richard J. Schonberger, Japanese Manufacturing Techniques, Free Press, 1982.
  3. Michael L. George, Lean Six Sigma: Combining Six Sigma With Lean Speed, McGraw-Hill Education, 2002.

Jay Watson is an operations and quality improvement management coach in Tempe, AZ. He earned a master’s degree in HR development from Webster University in Webster Groves, MO, and is an ASQ member.

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