What are Standards?

Standards represent “accepted ways of doing things” and can be defined as sets or features of characteristics that describe products, processes, services or concepts. (National Research Council, 2005) Alternatively, standards can be described as “rules, regulations, and frameworks intended to enable individuals, groups, organizations, countries and nations to achieve goals.” (Spivak & Brenner, 2001) According to these authors, there are five types of standards: 1) physical or measurement standards; 2) standards for symbols, meanings and language; 3) standards for products and processes, including test validation, quality assurance, and operating procedures; 4) standards for systems (including management systems and regulatory systems); and 5) standards for health, safety, the environment and for ensuring other consumer interests. Standards may be compulsory (as in the case of legal and regulatory standards, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley requirements for financial reporting) or voluntarily adopted (as in the case of product interface standards such as USB for computer peripherals).

Because standards are a mechanism used by social groups to promote norms, and to facilitate the creation of artifacts that advance human capabilities, standards are technologies. (Recall that Random House defines technology as “The sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilizations.”)

What can standards do for you and your projects? The importance of standards can be explained in terms of the eight goals that standards can be used to achieve (Blind, 2004):

  • Compatibility – facilitating cooperation between people, processes, systems, or technologies
  • Communication – facilitates information flow between people, processes, systems or technologies
  • Conformance – provides a common basis to establish competency or define excellence
  • Continuous Improvement – helps organizations leverage the “lessons learned” that are imbued within the standards
  • Establish Order – promotes consistency, reliability and effective communications
  • Prescribe Behavior – enables organizations to reduce variability between people and systems
  • Promote Social Order – establishes a basis for legal and ethical behavior
  • Establish Shared Meaning – provides a context for communication, compatibility and conformance

A standard is “working” if it accomplishes one or more of these goals (depending, of course, on how relevant and pertinent the goals are to the project that is being pursued). For example, it’s probably not very important for two computer devices to “promote social order” if they need to communicate. But it’s definitely important for people.


Blind, K. (2003). The economics of standards. Kluwer Academic Press.
National Research Council. (1995). Standards, conformity assessment and trade. National Academy Press.
Spivak, L. & Brenner, F.C. (2001). Standardization essentials: principles and practice. Marcel Dekker.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma (LSS) is a structured problem-solving approach for improving quality and productivity. Lean approaches focus on improving speed and flow in business processes, which leads to the outcome of reducing waste. Tools such as value stream mapping (VSM), flow diagrams, 8D, FMEA, and OPCP are typically used. Six Sigma methods seek to reduce variation and/or defects in either processes or products. In these cases, methods such as statistical process control, design of experiments, and “Design for X” are often employed. The target metric is typically “Six Sigma”, which represents no more than 3.4 defects for every million opportunities you have to generate a defect. This means that how you define a defect is pretty important!

But what about if you want to take an integrated approach to problem solving, where you think about how reducing waste, reducing variation, and reducing defects are all inter-related? It is in precisely these cases that Lean Six Sigma is so valuable. Pundits advocating Lean will rightly note that Six Sigma methods don’t reduce waste; Six Sigma enthusiasts will point out that Lean can’t help you remove defects or manage variation. But what if the special cause that’s confounding your process is also generating tons of waste? Makes sense to look at the problem holistically, which is what LSS helps you do.

Both Lean and Six Sigma help us identify forces that make our processes unnecessarily complex. It is by rooting out these causes that we achieve the primary goals of LSS: reducing waste, reducing variation, and reducing defects. Using a framework like DMAIC helps us pose the following questions:

  • What’s your quality goal? (Hint: choose the most important from the three above)
  • How do you define a defect? (Note: this often changes for each new LSS project)
  • What tools can you use to achieve that quality goal, given a broad selection of Lean and Six Sigma methods to choose from?

(Specific examples illustrating how to ask and interpret these questions using DMAIC will be presented in future articles, along with a description of how to use the Lean Six Sigma Quality Transformation Toolkit – LSSQTT – to execute your project.)

A successfully completed Lean Six Sigma project will generate a clear tangible value. This could include financial savings, savings in time and effort, reduced costs of materials, improved cash flow, cycle time reduction, or improved (measurable) customer satisfaction. Typically, a single Lean Six Sigma project will improve only one or two of these variables. Don’t try to improve all at once, which could get you bogged down in details. Iteration is the key!

What is Innovation?

invention -> Innovation -> Technology Transfer -> Diffusion of Innovations

Innovation is the practice of making new concepts and ideas relevant and useful to individuals and communities of people.

This contrasts with the process of invention, through which new ideas are generated while the linkages between these new ideas and existing ideas are simultaneously uncovered. Innovation defines the context of use, while invention does not. The products of innovation are fundamentally ideas, characterized by novelty, utility and relevance. However, the distinctive feature of innovation is that these ideas, once connected with a particular context of use, at once capture the potential to add value to systems, people, processes and even other ideas.

Although new mechanisms for value creation can be unlocked through the innovation process, value is created when new products, services and processes are designed, through the integration of knowledge and the understanding of the capabilities of the organization that is poised to deliver that value.

As a result, innovation is critically dependent not only on the people doing the innovating, but also on the social networks of people connected to those innovators, whose influences inform and impact the process of discovery. (Radziwill & DuPlain, 2008)

What’s the bottom line? Innovation does not exist without people who have needs, and who are somehow connected to one another!


Radziwill, N. M., and R.F. DuPlain, 2008: A Model for Business Innovation in the Web 2.0 World. Chapter in Web 2.0 Business Models, IGI Global Publishing. Available from Amazon.

What is a Quality System?

According to the ASQ glossary online, a quality management system (QMS, alternatively referred to as simply a “quality system”) can be considered a mechanism for managing and continuously improving core processes to “achieve maximum customer satisfaction at the lowest overall cost to the organization”. A quality system applies and synthesizes philosophies, standards, methodologies and tools to achieve quality-related goals.

A quality system thus represents a specific implementation of quality philosophies/concepts, standards, methodologies and tools, for the purpose of achieving quality-related goals. Upon implementation, a quality system will be unique to an organization.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) prescribes a minimum standard for the elements of a QMS through the ISO 9001:2000 standard. The major components of an ISO-compliant QMS using these guidelines are: [1]

  • Identification and mapping of processes (administrative, organizational, operational)
  • Specific determination of the interrelatedness of processes (including identification and mapping of cross-cutting processes that span organizational boundaries)
  • Plan for operations and control of these processes, recognizing that the conditions and specifications for control of each of the processes may be different from one another,
  • Plan for dynamically allocating resources to accommodate the demands of the operations and control of these processes,
  • Application of systems thinking by identifying the system of systems that comprise the interdependent processes,
  • Identification of mechanisms to measure, monitor, analyze and continuously improve the processes in the context of the organization and its environment, and an
  • Action Plan for proactively deploying the QMS through the organization, which must include the development of
  • Records that track compliance to the QMS and changes that are made to the QMS itself.

The July 2003 issue of Quality Progress [2] discussed all of the following as “quality systems” – ISO 9000, Ford Motor Co.’s quality operating system, lean, Six Sigma, lean and Six Sigma combined, systems thinking, complexity theory, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria, combinations of methods and unique approaches. But the full article didn’t answer the question of “Where do I start?”

In response, Radziwill et al. [3] proposed a general approach to determine what quality systems should be used, if any, what methods to apply to which processes, and how to select appropriate quality tools (for example, advanced product quality planning, failure mode effects analysis or quality function deployment) for the questions that need to be answered as part of a quality system.


[1] Cianfrani, Tsiakals, & West (2001). ISO 9001: 2000 Implementation Guide. Milwaukee, WI: Quality Press. AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an AWESOME BOOK!!! Totally explains all the aspects of ISO 9001:2000 that a manager might need to know to understand how it all fits together, and it’s much lighter than my laptop.
[2] “Multiple Choice: What’s the Best Quality System?” Quality Progress, July 2003, pp. 25-45.
[3] Radziwill, N. M., Olson, D., Vollmar, A., Lippert, T., Mattis, T., Van Dewark, K. and J.W. Sinn. (2008). Starting from Scratch. Quality Progress, September, p. 40-47.

What Obama and McCain can learn from Michael Porter

On September 26, in the first Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, the candidates discussed the perceived success or failure of the war in Iraq. McCain vigorously promoted his feeling that the troop surge was a success, while Obama focused on the rationale behind invading in the first place – claiming that the tactics may be working, but the bigger picture, the strategy – was misplaced. McCain launched back with a criticism: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu, Chinese General, 500 B.C.

Pundits have questioned whether either of the candidates really knows the difference between strategy and tactics, despite some evidence to the contrary. In politics, the distinction between strategy and tactics is compounded by the fact that the military defines strategy in a very specific context where the concepts of policy and strategy can easily be entangled.

But politics aside… do you know the difference? And do you know why you should care?

The answer lies in a 1996 article in Harvard Business Review by Michael Porter entitled “What is Strategy?” – one of the classic articles in management. He argues that there is a fundamental difference between strategy, which involves striking a contrast between yourself and your competitors, and operational effectiveness, which means “performing similar activities better than rivals perform them.” All of the pillars of managing quality and productivity fall into this latter category, which explains why executives have, according to Porter, struggled to translate those operational improvements into sustainable profitability.

“Improving operational effectiveness is a necessary part of management, but it is not strategy… The operational agenda is the proper place for constant change, flexibility, and relentless efforts to achieve best practice. In contrast, the strategic agenda is the right place for defining a unique position, making clear trade-offs, and tightening fit… strategic continuity, in fact, should make an organization’s continual improvement more effective.”

Using this frame of reference, a country’s foreign policy is more akin to its strategy than war plans or their means of execution.

Why should you care? Because fighting the good fight of operational effectiveness will not necessarily win you the strategic war. Figuring out what you do uniquely, how and why you do it uncommonly well, and understanding how to align your capabilities with your mission is the secret to success. Are either of the candidates meeting these criteria? It’s your call.


Porter, M. (1996). What is strategy? Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996, 61-78.

RIP Six Sigma: Management Fads and the Apocalypse

The End of Six Sigma?

The End of Six Sigma?

On December 21, 2012, the Sun aligns with the Galactic Center precisely – for the first time in 26,000 years. At the same time, the 5,000 year Mayan calendar resets to the year zero. Apocalyptic fears are running higher as a result (those Mayans must have known *something*, right?), and internet bulletin boards are swimming with speculation: “Is it the end of the world?”

As a scholar of quality management, I can’t help but notice a correlation between this prediction and one offered by Goeke & Offodile in a 2005 edition of the Quality Management Journal. By studying the frequency of articles tagged with “Six Sigma” in the ABI-Inform catalog over time, and comparing the results with quality circles and TQM (which they considered to be earlier fads) using a technique called “analogy forecasting,” they observed that a “fad” pattern seems to be apparent.

What is a fad? According to Abrahamson (1996), it’s a “relatively transitory collective belief… that a management technique leads rational management process.” In their pursuit of rationality, a mass of people tries out a particular management approach, and time ultimately leads them in another direction (hence the transitory part). Thus we shouldn’t look at a fad as something bad, necessarily – it might just reflect a normal collective learning process. Fads help us learn and develop tacit knowledge, regardless of whether they are perceived to “work out”.

If time confirms the forecast provided by analogy forecasting, Six Sigma will last about another 7 years. Hmmm… article published in 2005, add to that 7 years… and you get… 2012! Based on the faith that so many have placed in Six Sigma, it would not be surprising that a transition to a new management paradigm – for them – would feel like an apocalypse of sorts.

I am a proponent of applying Six Sigma analytical methods for improving performance in many situations, especially those that call for the systematic removal of defects and reducing variation. But it’s important to remember that underlying so many of these management methodologies is a foundational layer of common sense: your people must be aligned according to the values they share with one another, those values have to be aligned with the organization’s values, and the people have to know what to do day by day to keep things running, improve on them, and innovate for the future.

Some of the conclusions that Goeke & Offodile offer are excellent as well as fundamental:

“Management fads, when successful, disappear from view because they have become part of good, mainstream management practice.”

“Even when management fads don’t work out as planned, they still benefit by adding to the firm’s collective knowledge.”

I’d like to second this latter quote, and toss in two more benefits: a) attention to a new management approach, even if it turns out to be a fad, can stimulate collective awareness of a company’s current and desired core values, and b) the common language that is often provided can help rally people around a common vision – one step towards achieving real results.

Six Sigma, whether it is a management fad or just solid management practice “in transition” to something that becomes more invisible, will not change the underlying strategy of a business. Managers should always seek to establish solid, sustainable foundations – and continually improve upon them to achieve ever-increasing standards for excellence – regardless of whether they call it Six Sigma, or something else.


Abrahamson, E. (1996). Management fashion. Academy of Management Review, 21(1), 254-285.

Goeke, R.J. & Offodile, O.F. (2005). Forecasting management philosophy life cycles: a comparative study of Six Sigma and TQM. Quality Management Journal, 12(2), 34-36.

What’s the Best Quality System?

In the September 2008 issue of Quality Progress, a group of collaborators and I published “Starting from Scratch” to help people figure out how to approach the often-nebulous problem of how to launch a new quality system. Making sense out of the acronym soup of quality systems can be daunting, even though you have to wade through much more than acronyms: ISO 9000, AS9100, Baldrige, Six Sigma, Lean, Lean Six Sigma, systems thinking, complexity theory, and so forth.

Ron Marafioti commented online and said that when he was reading our article he “became livid in realizing that an article on quality systems written with one author from Wisconsin-Stout failed to draw the distinction of tools vs. philosophy; in other words, short vs. long term. What this article did do for me is highlight the short term view that Baldrige (a philosophy) takes time and therefore is not attractive in a short-term economy, while the focus in this economy is busy in fighting fires and looking for opportunities to capitalize on short vs. long-term gains.”

I was surprised to hear this, because I’m pretty conscious of both the distinction between quality philosophies and tools, and I know very well that “there is no instant pudding.” So I re-read what we wrote, and sure enough, we didn’t call out something in the article that was made very explicit in our notes preparing for the article – oops! That is:

  • Philosophies provide a basis for your organization’s core values and quality policy (e.g. Baldrige, TQM, Deming’s 14 points)
  • Methodologies provide skeletons for problem solving, and are often aligned with quality goals such as reducing waste or variation (e.g. DMAIC, LSSQTT)
  • Tools support those methodologies and help you identify the additional detail you need to carry out data-driven problem solving (e.g. QFD for linking customer requirements to technical specifications; VSM for breaking down how parts of a process contribute to the value it ultimately delivers)

The mission of the “Quality Systems Development Roadmap” that we positioned in the article (and that’s hosted in its entirety at https://qualityandinnovation.com/qs726) was to help people figure out the difference between philosophies, methodologies and tools. Ideally, an organization becomes familiar with the value system espoused by one or more of the philosophies. Then, it consciously selects the methodologies and tools that support specific quality goals – and this can differ from process to process. By making the concept of starting a quality system actionable, we wanted to illustrate the interrelationships between the philosophies, methodologies, and tools on a more practical level.

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