Innovation breakthrough

Today’s quality solutions require new skills. Praveen Gupta explains why quality professionals need to learn innovative thinking in order to develop solutions fast

Issue number: April 2008
Date: 09 April 2008
Author: Praveen Gupta

Traditionally, quality approaches include tools such as process mapping, descriptive statistics, root cause analysis, comparative experiments and control charts. In the mid-1980s, Motorola, considered to be a pioneering manufacturing company in the electronics industry, developed the six sigma methodology under extreme competition from manufacturers and global competitors. Six sigma, through a newer aggregate approach to improving business processes quickly, included most of the tools previously deployed in piecemeal.

Six sigma

Bill Smith, the inventor of six sigma, observed at Motorola that various tools had been implemented in silos but the net effect on customer satisfaction was minimal. Therefore, he developed an integrated approach for improvement in an intensely competitive environment, which is ultimately what differentiated six sigma from other known tools.

Six sigma is an improvement methodology deployed to maintain a leadership position through an aggressive rate of improvement, where aggressiveness is defined as requiring employees’ intellectual involvement along with their focused effort. In other words, the position to solve problems must change rather than the routine process of improvement. Deploying a lot of effort without using intellectual capability will lead to a waste of resources without seeing dramatic improvement.

This means that after deploying six sigma methodology, if the solution does not make the process look different and produce different results, it should not be considered to be a six sigma approach. On the other hand, if we can achieve significant results by doing things differently and without using statistical tools, this would be considered a six sigma project because it accelerated change.

For an organisation to achieve dramatic improvements quickly cross-functional teamwork and a synergy of resources must be adopted. This requires an alignment of organisational priorities and leadership expectation in order to ensure channeling of corporate resources. Leadership engagement and communication are critical for sharing a common corporate six sigma vision, setting aggressive goals for improvement and using shared resources effectively.

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Acceptable vs excellence

One of the challenges of using older quality tools, such as inspection, testing and sampling plans, is that we become used to accepting or rejecting the production output. It is equivalent to doing the minimum work required to get the product out the door and shipped to customers.

Imagine if we go to school, take a class and do minimal homework. When we are tested, we are likely to get a ‘C’ grade. The instructor gives an ‘A’grade only when the student does their best. Similarly, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the concept of ‘acceptable’ led us to build and ship ‘C’ grade output. However, we are now continually seeking to raise the bar. The challenges we are facing are due to past experience of poor practices and poor understanding of excellence. Excellence can have different meanings to different people. In order to institutionalise excellence, we must be able to clearly define the meaning of excellence in operational terms. My definition follows in figure 1. It is based on the understanding that we must define targets in order to achieve excellence. Defining targets allows employees to focus on excellence intuitively and depend less on inspection, test and verification activities.

Breakthrough solutions

Imagine you want to improve your income in the next 12 months by five per cent. What would you have to do? You would be most likely to continue doing the same thing but perhaps a little harder, a little faster and a little longer.

However, if you decide to improve your income in the next 12 months by 50 per cent, you would have to think about doing something radically different. This is where improvement and innovation come together. To keep up with growing competition or to accelerate improvement, you need to think innovatively.

Six sigma was developed for accelerating improvement. This requires breakthrough solutions and implies the use of innovative thinking. We can differentiate between creativity and innovation by seeing creativity as an idea while innovation is applied creativity. To meet customers’ changing demands, you must be able to think creatively on your feet.

Thinking creatively consists of the three following steps:

  1. Decide and force yourself to think, as thinking requires effort
  2. Learn and look for unique aspects in everything
  3. Combine two or more things in a unique way

The challenge we face is that most of us think we are not innovative. Three years ago, incorporating innovative thinking in our problem-solving tool kit led me to look for innovation methods and tools. I found plenty of books on creativity but little existed on an innovation method that can be taught to individuals to achieve predictable outcomes.

I decided to develop a framework for innovation based on the work of the best minds from modern history. I benchmarked Einstein, Edison, Newton, Galileo and Ford to look at their innovation and discovery practices. This answered many unknown quality innovation questions about the innovation process and led me to develop the breakthrough innovation or Brinnovation framework.

Institutionalising innovation

Brinnovation is a system of innovation that empowers people through innovative thinking and enables them to develop innovative solutions quickly. In other words, it helps us learn to be innovative all the time in everything, or be continually intellectually engaged in everything we do. We must all become thinking workers.

The framework first clarifies the relationship between our mind, effort and innovation as:

innovation = function {effort x (knowledge,experimentation and extrapolation)

This framework helps us to recognise that in developing new solutions we must have domain expertise, be able to experiment quickly and extrapolate for breakthrough innovation according to the ‘rule of two’. This rule says breakthrough innovation results in reducing a feature by at least half, or doubling it, whichever way it creates more value.

For example, if mobile phones are to be reduced in thickness, trying to reduce the thickness or cutting the defect rate by at least half would both require breakthrough innovation.

In order to manage innovation, we must learn to understand types of innovations based on activities. As shown in Figure 2, there are four types of innovation: fundamental, platform, derivatives and variation. The division of innovation in this way helps to plan purpose, expected outcomes, resources required and expected time to innovation.

Fundamental innovation relates to conceptual discoveries with immense impact on life for the longer term versus variation innovation that can be used to personalise a solution and be accomplished in a very short time. Businesses normally work to develop products or process technology platform innovations and develop their derivative innovations to maximise their economic gains. Successful businesses continually develop new platforms and maintain multiple platforms to serve customers.

For example, applying innovative thinking to solving problems in the quality field, six sigma may be considered a new platform of problem-solving methods and its variations, such as six sigma for service or a specific industry, would be its derivatives. Six sigma professionals can innovate its variations for customised applications to specific processes or client needs. The fundamentals of six sigma are, after all, not new, but were mostly known prior to its development.

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Quality professionals

A recent visit to a company in India showed that the company performed better after eliminating its quality department. This might sound as if it is an exceptional case, but the writing is on the wall. We as quality professionals must be concerned about adding value to our organisations. We cannot simply police for compliance and publish quality reports that nobody wants to read. Therefore, we must think differently, learn new skills, and master the art of benefiting from employee ideas.

Figure 3 shows an organisational structure for institutionalising innovation. We can see that organisations need to beef up the innovation ladder for growth as well as focusing the conventional operations and financial team only on profit. We need to create a process for continual organic growth through innovation that begins with listening to employee ideas. Organisations that use more brains are bound to be more intelligent and capable of achieving sustained profitable growths than an organisation using fewer brains.


For instance, Robert Galvin, former chairman and CEO of Motorola, famously said he wanted to use the 110,000 brains of all employees rather than the brains of 10,000 managers. Employee involvement through suggestion boxes and similar approaches tends not to work due to lack of collaborative technology.

Today, quality professionals can take charge of implementing employee idea management using information technology, analysis, exploring for opportunities for profitable growth and facilitating innovative solutions. We must do away with firefighting to cut cost and instead become angels of profitable growth by creating growth opportunities for employees. Instead of applying old quality tools in rote manner we must become thinking and innovative quality professionals finding ways to apply the necessary tools innovatively to develop breakthrough innovations.

Going forward it will become imperative for quality professionals to learn innovation skills, as it builds on their strengths of driving change to extreme change or breakthroughs. It will enable quality professionals to create value rather than cut waste. I hope it will also bring pride to the quality profession. 

Praveen Gupta was a pioneer of the six sigma methodology at Motorola and went on to develop the Brinnovation™ framework. He is president and founder of Accelper Consulting and a fellow of the American Society for Quality. He has published several books including Business Innovation in the 21st Century, Six Sigma Business Scorecard, Stat Free Six Sigma and the Six Sigma Performance Handbook.

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