Quality in Radical Innovation

Q: Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) involves the discovery, development, and understanding of critical to quality areas and fosters innovation. However, studies have shown that using focus groups, interviews, and etc., based on current users only bring forth ideas relative to incremental innovation, as the only knowledge that most customers have is of current products. But we know that the greatest potential for return is in radical innovation.

My question is: what useful tools are there for determining critical to quality areas of radical innovation products, or products that are new to market where customers have little to no knowledge of?

A: These are great questions that are not easy to answer as posed.

One of the dilemmas I’ve seen with companies building radical innovation without enough knowledge to identify the important quality aspects is that the company is often under intense pressure to get to market. In some cases, the innovation presents clear aspects that have to be controlled to create an acceptable product. In some cases, the issues are unknown.

I do not agree the work within a group only reflects the knowledge already present. One of the best tools in these situations is carefully crafted questions posed to those most familiar with the new technology. Given my personal bias, I would ask: “What will fail? Why?” and then ask about material, process, and feature performance variation. Focusing on the failure mechanisms and variation will often lead the team to uncover those aspects of the product that require well crafted specifications and monitoring.

Not a fancy tool, just a question or two. Yet, the focus is on what will cause the innovation to not meet the customer’s expectations. What could go wrong? Make it visible, talked about, and examined. Creating a safe atmosphere (no blame or personal attacks) to explore failure permits those most vested in making the product work examine the boundaries and paths that lead to failure.

Once the process of safely examining failures starts, a range of tools assist with the refinement and prioritization. Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) and Highly Accelerated Life Testing (HALT), provide means to further discover areas to explore the paths to failure. I mention creating a safe environment first, because using FMEA and HALT when someone’s reputation or status is threatened generally leads to these tools being very ineffective.

One more thought on a safe environment for the exploration of failures. Focus on the process, materials and interaction with customers and their environment. “How can we make this better, more resilient, more robust, etc.?” Not, “Why did you design it this way?” or, “This appears to be a design mistake.” All involved have the same goal to create a quality product or service, yet there may be a lot unknown related to those conditions that lead to product failure. An open and honest exploration to discover the margins and product weaknesses is most effective in a safe environment for those concerned. And, by the way, this includes vendors, contractors, suppliers, and all those involved with the supply chain, development and manufacturing processes.

Fred Schenkelberg
Voting member of U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 56
Voting member of U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 69
Reliability Engineering and Management Consultant
FMS Reliability

Editor’s note: Want to read more about innovation?

Check out these open access resources from the ASQ Knowledge Center:

Browse books about innovation from Quality Press:

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