Six Sigma and more: System design

David SchwinnDavid returns to thinking about steps for designing systems—fundamental to Six Sigma efforts.

I just finished participating in a delightful design charrette. Lansing Community College, Ferris State University, and the Kendall College of Art and Design are collaborating to attempt to enter the 2015 Solar Decathlon sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The decathlon is a college competition to design and create a solar powered home to very challenging specifications. I’m sharing this with you because design can be a very powerful tool in the Six Sigma arsenal and this little charrette both reminded me of, and taught me a few important lessons about the design process.

Let’s start with who was there. There were 42 people at the charrette including students and faculty from the disciplines of architectural and interior design, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, sustainable energy, construction management, marketing, and management and leadership. Although we have not yet defined the customer, we had a pretty broad cross section of people involved in the design process. That leads to lesson #1. Because I felt that I hadn’t brought much to the party so far, I mentioned that I am an engineer. One of the other participants said they didn’t know whether or not to hold that against me. It reminded me that many engineers are not taught, unless things have changed drastically since I was in school, to involve other stakeholders in the design process. I suspect architects are taught to involve those other folks. The net result is, of course, that the folks involved in the manufacture, assembly, delivery, payment, use, service, disposal, and reuse of our products are usually not adequately involved in the design process. Lesson #1 is to involve all the stakeholders in the design process.

Although no end users were at the charrette, one of the teams began their end-of-the-day report by describing what the day of a single head of household looks like, then went on to say that the house needs to meet the ever-changing, daily needs of that head of household and his or her family even when they are all gone from the house. That leads to lesson #2. We all know that we need to hear the voice of the customer. We usually do that with focus groups and/or surveys. I remembered that we should actually involve them in the design process. The team reminded me that we also need to actually observe the customer in the process because some of their needs may be so obvious to them that they are unable to articulate them. Lesson #2 is to involve all those stakeholders using as many techniques, including surveys, focus groups, design charrettes, and direct observation, as possible.

As the team I was on worked, I noticed a natural tendency to work within constraints that had not yet been clearly defined. I was trained as an engineer to design within the constraints I was given. I believe we tend to err toward assuming constraints that may or may not actually exist. I also, more strongly, believe in lesson #3: generate our possible design solutions before we slap constraints on them. Use the constraints to choose among all the possibilities, rather than using them as a filter before we get all our ideas on the table.

We began both this and the initial charrette with some good, old-fashioned benchmarking. So long as we don’t get stuck in someone else’s solution, I thing intelligent benchmarking is a useful early step…that is lesson #4.

We’ve now done two fairly large design charrettes with no attempt to come to a single solution. That leads to lesson #5: stay with the possibilities for a little while.

What I’ve written here is just what I learned or was reminded of in today’s design charrette. My lessons by no means represent a comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts for the design process. I do, however, hope you find them useful as you integrate the design process into your Six Sigma effort. My sincere thanks to the architects.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.