Debunking a Myth: Why Pairing Lean Six Sigma with Innovation Makes Sense for Business

Feb. 18, 2010
Xerox sees 50% return on investment using Lean Six Sigma techniques during an innovation project.

The notion of Lean Six Sigma and innovation being used in the same process, or even the same sentence, is considered by many to be an oxymoron. How is it that a process-focused methodology like Lean Six Sigma can help promote creativity that drives innovation? Xerox has discovered how, and it's a process that other companies can learn from. The company has seen impressive results by pairing its Lean Six Sigma initiatives and innovation teams together to drive product development. Recently, the use of Lean Six Sigma techniques during an innovation project resulted in millions of dollars in total savings and nearly 50% return on investment for Xerox.

At Xerox, engineers have embraced Lean Six Sigma methods and tools to deliver a product that not only meets the needs of customers, but does so in the most efficient and economical way possible. During the development of the next generation product for Xerox's portfolio, the iGen4 press, the team utilized Design for Lean Six Sigma to address and exceed customer expectations.

Voice of the Customer

Design for Lean Six Sigma is a technique that specifically focuses on improving efficiencies and reducing costs related to the design and delivery of new technology. Gathering Voice of the Customer (VOC) feedback, or data that describes customers' needs and perceptions of products and services, is an important step in Design for Lean Six Sigma. It helps decipher current market demands to develop specific metrics that drive development.

The iGen4 development team used VOC to understand what key audiences expected from the product and defined the goals for improvement. Team members "walked the customer's process" to observe press operators in action, allowing them to fully understand their needs. Surveys were conducted to gather input from both current and prospective customers. The team also analyzed information taken from iGen3 press customer service calls to gain an understanding of current usage to help determine where to focus efforts.

Integrating Customer Input into Development Phase

The VOC data indicated that productivity and image quality, including color control, were the top two areas of interest from customers. Design for Lean Six Sigma played an important role in the next phase of the project as well -- using the data to make smart decisions during the development process. One additional goal of this project involved managing the design churn, and the resulting complexity in configuration and testing, in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Lean Six Sigma-based models and simulations were critical to understanding the performance of the system as a whole. Rather than optimizing each sub-process independently, a significant effort was made to examine the ways the sub-processes work together and use that information to optimize the entire system -- generating the ideal output to create the best possible customer experience.

Achieving Results

Using Design for Lean Six Sigma throughout the development process allowed the product to go to market on time, hit customer quality metrics and improve customer productivity. It also allowed for the significant cost savings and return on investment mentioned above -- millions of dollars in total savings and nearly 50% return on investment for Xerox.

How Business of all Sizes Can Replicate this Success

Introducing Lean Six Sigma methodologies into the innovation process is something that companies of all sizes can do. Whether the project is the size of the iGen4 press, or something on a smaller scale, there are Lean Six Sigma principles that can be applied to aid in all types of innovation.

Here are some tips for setting a project up for success:

  • Develop strong teams: the team members are the most important part of any project. Using the Belbin Team Role system when selecting project participants can help develop a group that will work at the highest potential. Developed in the 1970's by Meredith Belbin, a researcher in the U.K., the system is meant to identify a person's strengths, weaknesses, roles and skills. The system operates on the basis that a mix of roles proves to be more effective than a group of like-minded members. An optimal group size is five to seven people with a variety of the nine set behaviors defined by Belbin. When participants know everyone's strengths, weaknesses and comfort zones, they develop a better understanding of the group dynamics and are able to communicate more effectively to avoid problems.
  • Gain commitment from the entire organization: It is critical to gain buy-in from the top to demonstrate the value of Lean Six Sigma and the dedication the company intends to make toward it. Leaders can champion the changes and motivate groups to work together.
  • Set goals and monitor improvements: Innovation is known to take unpredictable twists and turns, but there are processes that guide it. Processes have characteristics that can be measured, analyzed and controlled. Use this knowledge to set reasonable goals - identify what is possible in the short-term and what the ideal long-term goal is. After the project is under way, monitor progress against goals and make adjustments as necessary.

Innovation -- creativity at its best -- fuels growth and drives business results. Lean Six Sigma is shaking its longtime criticism as a "creativity suppressor" off as it helps get new solutions into the hands of customers faster. Properly used over time, Lean Six Sigma is a source of sustainable competitive advantage.

Robert Hildebrand is iGen Family Xerographic Integration Manager at Xerox Corporation.

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