I was reminded of my short-lived exposure to Six Sigma this weekend when I came upon an article in the New York Times called Welcoming the New, Improving the Old. It touched upon a challenge that had concerned me when I was going through my green belt training (a level of Six Sigma certification) at the time.

Six Sigma is an incredibly rigorous process focused on statistical measurement in order to make improvements in the delivery of a product or service. I was originally drawn to it as a way to solve some of the process problems I had faced in my own area, expecting that it could be used to address nearly any challenge.

What I learned is that, as powerful a tool as Six Sigma can be, it is also easily manipulated to measure the wrong things to solve the wrong problems. There were countless examples of companies applying Six Sigma to problems customers didn’t care about, which, in the end, wasted gobs of time and money. The point that our instructor hammered home was, “define what is a defect based upon what is important to customers.” This, frustratingly, is often not something easily quantified. Why? For two reasons: sometimes the customer isn’t very forthcoming about what they want; and sometimes the customer just doesn’t know until they see it.

For these very qualitative challenges, enter Design Thinking, defined as a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. The goal (improvement) is the same, but attacks the challenge from a very different perspective. I see Design Thinking as the methodology that creates the “aha!” moment that converts the prospect into a customer.

My favorite quote from the article:

To survive, many businesses will have to figure out how to incorporate both approaches. Design thinking offers tools for exploring new markets and opportunities; Six Sigma skills can be applied to improve existing products. Companies that adhere strictly to one or the other risk failure. “The practices that make for success at one time can trap firms and contribute to their downfall at a later time,” says Bob Cole, a quality expert and professor emeritus at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

What if you’re a new company? What if you’re developing a new product in a start-up?

I would challenge that most new-product-oriented entrepreneurs see the world from the Design Thinking perspective, developing their innovation based upon a Design Thinking insight (“How can I improve upon this product/process?”, “Can I do something that works for a different consumer preference?”). Many of these entrepreneurs are heavily invested in their own vision of the product, seeing it more as a Picasso painting than something that will be competitive in a market depending on what the consumer (not the inventor) chooses to believe is important.

However, successful new product start-ups focus equally on the types of issues that Six Sigma raises (“What are the potential defects in this product?”, “What will the design be such that manufacturing errors are nearly non-existent?”). The discipline of Six Sigma methodology helps to take the qualitative vision of the product and turn it into something that can sit on a store shelf.

In any product development project, make sure to equally entertain the Picasso side and the engineer side of the brain. Talk to people about their own preferences to get a better understanding of what the market might consider buying. Ask yourself questions and develop a framework that assesses exactly why the product can fail (both mechanically and in the marketplace). Without the intense scrutiny from both the Six Sigma and Design Thinking lenses, a lot of time, money and energy might be invested in a product destined to fail.