Tiju ThomasDepartment of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology Madras
Sardar Patel Road, Chennai 600036, Tamil Nadu, India
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This is a really really bold article. Six Sigma is a concept within manufacturing and process engineering. However I posit that the concept has general applicability for technopreneurs and academic researchers! In order to make this article lucid, I will split it into two parts. The first part is meant to be for the technopreneur, while the second part is written to be relevant to the academic researcher. However at the outset, we will begin by going through some general details about Six Sigma, which will benefit all readers.
Six Sigma is a set of standards that are adopted by several manufacturing industries in order to ensure that products manufactured have minimal chance of being defective. In principle, Six Sigma companies aim at ~99.99966% chances of success, when they run a production line. This means that out of a million parts, only 3.4 would be defective. Motorola has been the pioneer in defining Six Sigma standards and the associated practices. Today many other firms (including GE) adopt practices derived from the original Six Sigma model laid down by Motorola. However some companies (like IBM) and several research labs (especially those that pursue well-defined deliverables) have adopted a "Lean Six Sigma" model, to ensure high quality manufacturing, while pushing towards growth.
The Lean Six Sigma aims at adopting "Lean" practices (which means being skimpish about resources), while pursuing the Six Sigma model. It is widely believe that this combination of "Lean" and "Six Sigma" ensures directed progress while ensuring quality. This model aims at optimum use of the resources at hand, while also ensuring very directed progress towards better product design, development and manufacture. The "Lean Six Sigma" is what I think is particularly beneficial for both academic researchers and technopreneurs.
Part 1: "Lean Six Sigma" for the technopreneur
A technopreneur is an entrepreneur who is armed with useful technology and domain-specific skills. The "Lean Six Sigma" ensures that the technopreneur pays close attention to (i) budgetary and resource constraints, (ii) efficient logistics, (iii) minimization of probability of failure, while (iv) avoiding delays.
The Six Sigma model provides fairly precise guidelines about problem definition, and subsequent plan of action. This model gives very high priority to "problem definition". A robust definition of problem is extremely important. A technopreneur could define his problem using market research, "Voice of Customer (VoC)", while also pooling in from already existing domain expertize. Knowledge of the state of the art is always a significant plus point.
The technopreneur must remain abreast with the technology scene, and have an understanding of it from both the technologist's and the customer's point of view. Literature survey, market research, conference proceedings, and technical reports (from firms working in the domain) can all provide the "measurables" for a given technology. The measurables can be purely technology-centric. However most "healthy" measurables are likely to be both technology-centric and customer-centric. What this means is that a comprehensive set of measurables would take into account not just technological aspects of a product, but also aspects to do with human interface and human perception of technology.
After identifying the "measurables", cause-effect relationships are to be established in cases where inadequacy/flaw/bugs in the technology is unearthed. Time must be spent collecting data (using the "measurables") and analyzing the reason for the flaw/inadequacy. A solution to resolving the flaw/inadequancy is to be proposed. This must always be executed in a time bound manner. Improvements in already existing products must be tried and tested using the same or modified measurables.
Finally, the technopreneur must make full use of "pilot runs" even before s/he markets or launches the technology in a full-fledged manner. Step wise improvements (incorporated using VoC, and robust use of measurables and analysis) are inevitable in any technology. Launching products in the increasing sequence of "goodness", and enhancing one's "feel" is a (relatively) robust and safe path for technopreneurs.
Part 2: Lean Six Sigma for a professional researcher
Saying that good process engineering schemes (Lean Six Sigma, in this case) will benefit academic researchers seems like a very careless and hyperbolic statement. And yet that is exactly what I am claiming! For the time being, let us take my claim for face value and run with it. Please bear with me, as I explain why I think the statement has some worth.
In both process engineering, and academic research, we wish to develop efficient working models to ensure high quality outputs. The precise measurable of quality are of course quite different in both these cases. The Six Sigma model is really meant to develop efficient working models, which can result in high quality deliverables. If you stretch your imagination hard enough, you can consider "high quality research" as a deliverable. The method used to produce good research is the process that often needs to be optimized. For many of us, zeroing-in on a good working model for our academic research is a perennial problem. This is where insights from Six-Sigma may help.
Let us remember the basics: the Six Sigma model emphasizes problem definition. I have been in academia long enough to tell you that far too much time gets lost in pursuit of ill-defined directions, which very often lead no where. Problem definition in academic research is significantly facilitated by thorough and up-to-date knowledge in the chosen topic. Here is where experienced researchers (eg. senior graduate students, teachers and professors) can chip in with advise. Abstracting services can be very handy while sifting through tons of articles. Brain storming sessions with open-minded colleagues and advisors will be helpful in coming up with "fertile" and viable hypotheses.
After identifying clear cut goals and objectives (i.e after completion of the problem definition stage), you may consider moving into the stage wherein you will lay out a clear cut plan of action, with definite "measurables" for your success. A thorough "analysis" of the "measurables" must be done at every stage of your project. Based on improved knowledge in the area, dynamically improving the hypothesis may become essential. Such improvements should, in principle, help you go several steps closer to a high quality outcome. In other words, maintaining a certain degree of informed, creative, constructive, and dynamic "control" over the trajectory of your project will be hugely helpful in heading in the right direction.
I advocate the "lean" model for researchers, which means to say that academicians should be somewhat skimpish when it comes to utilization of money and resources, at least at the ideation and project-launch stage. This will ensure effective utilization of the resources at hand. From there on, using systematic "analysis" of measurables, one can determine research directions that are truly productive and high in quality. Equitable use of resources is also aided by such a model.
As you develop a working model for yourself, let me wish you all success and much professional satisfaction!
PS: I consider Part 2 of this article a natural extension of the article present in "Research Methodology" section of this webpage.