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The Crossroads - Lean Six Sigma and Design Thinking
By  Alvin Villegas|Jun 20, 2017|

Bigstock creative businessman looking t 46166332

I’d been fascinated by how business process improvement and operational excellence methodologies have evolved over the years.  In the scholarly / academic space the discourse about this evolution is called Management Fashion / Fad which started as early as the industrial revolution of the 19th century.  It evolved because of the changing industrial landscape, and, transitioned from the manufacturing sector to the services sector.  Take the case of Total Quality Management (TQM) which started as an approach to improve over-all product quality by empowering the workforce, and, extreme focus on customers’ requirements. The early adapters of TQM were mainly from the manufacturing industry but the nature of the approach is agnostic of the type of industry, thus the diffusion and institutionalization of TQM in the services sector was seamless.  Moreover, TQM became the umbrella program for anything that has something to do with continuous improvement.  Approaches and programs in the 90’s such as Quality Circles, Suggestion Scheme System, 5S etc. have crossed paths with TQM, and grew as a staple organizational strategy for a lot of industries in the Philippines.

It is the nature of management fashions / fad, at one point in the evolution, there will be synergy of use, not by design but due to the necessity to integrate them because of the needs of the market.  Which brings me to the next potential crossroads of two potent approaches to continuous improvement and innovation, Lean Six Sigma and Design Thinking.  I’d been in a lot of industries, and have practiced continuous improvement long enough in my career to say that Lean Six Sigma is a fusion of the elements of Total Quality Management, Statistical Quality Control, Toyota Production System, Total Productive Maintenance, and Industrial Engineering.  These methodologies have one thing in common: finding ways to improve products and services…. faster, better, and cheaper. Design thinking has similar intent but the process is more centered on empathizing deeply with the needs of the end-user, and the development of solutions through  idea iteration and prototyping. Design Thinking literature describe it as a human-centered approach to innovation where the process does not focus on scientific methods or data analysis. .  

So where will the crossroads happen? It seems that these are two totally disparate continuous improvement, problem solving, and innovation approaches.  Lean Six Sigma is known to dwell on empirical data, observable evidences, and scientific methods, while the Design Thinking process evolves around empathy to end-user, ideation and prototyping.  The answer lies on Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle (PDCA)! Both are grounded on the Dr. Deming’s popular PDCA Cycle.

We know that the Lean Six Sigma’s DMAIC methodology’s foundation is the PDCA cycle, now let’s look closely at the five stages in the Design Thinking process:


The framework by which Design Thinking operates has the same simple construct as that of the PDCA cycle, and close semblance with the DMAIC methodology.  Mapping the three models, here’s how they intersect:


Since design thinking is a non-linear process, its elements could be practically integrated with the Lean Six Sigma methodology.  In the mapping above, both Lean Six Sigma and Design Thinking have a laser like focus on the Voice of the Customer (VOC).  In Lean Six Sigma, we use techniques such as Kano Analysis or Quality Function Deployment to define our VOC’s and CTQ’s (Critical to Quality). Design Thinking, on the other hand, has a powerful technique of unearthing customers’ or users’ requirements called the Empathy Mapping (I’ll write more about this in my next article).  Using these approaches in an organized manner will make VOC determination more defined, more so, close to being granular.  Furthermore, in the Improve Phase of a Lean Six Sigma project, the belter would normally facilitate the process to generate solutions which will then be subjected to prioritization, experimentation (if necessary), pilot testing, and measurement for effectiveness, these are the same processes as that of Design Thinking’s Ideate, Prototype and Test.  I believe that It will be advantageous for a Lean Six Sigma project leader to leverage the tools and processes of Design Thinking’s Ideate, Prototype and Test, especially if project solutions will not be needing deep mathematical modeling or an experimental design, e.g. Response Surface Methodology. 

The synergy of both methodologies can be used in a variety of business situations, be it in product development / design or business process improvement.  As in any management fashion evolution, the integration of Lean Six Sigma and Design Thinking is inevitable, it’s really a matter of when and how the integration will be diffused and adopted in various industries.  It will be an awesome to sight to see belters facilitating the Improve and Control Phases of a Lean Six Sigma project utilizing the Design Thinking approach.  Imagine a continuous improvement or business process re-engineering approach that incorporates both technical and human-centered solutions... simply intense!

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We Value Your Comments...

  • MarkJun 20, 2017

    So design thinking should be used together with Six Sigma?

  • Allan Jun 20, 2017

    Great way to illustrate and see how six sigma and design thinking are linked

  • Allan Jun 20, 2017

    Great way to illustrate and see how six sigma and design thinking are linked

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