Articles & Resources > Lean Six Sigma >

The Advantages Six Sigma Offers to Engineers

The Advantages Six Sigma Offers to Engineers

Three co-workers sitting together at a table working on their laptops with a blue banner across the bottom that says "six sigma and engineering".

Last Updated April 8, 2024

When Motorola first developed Six Sigma as a tool to improve operations and drive innovation, they did so with a process first developed by an engineer.

In 1986, Bill Smith, a Motorola engineer, took past research into measuring standard deviations in manufacturing products and refined it into what is now known as Six Sigma. The overall goal of the methodology is to reduce defects in a product to less than 3.4 per one million units or opportunities.

Motorola adopted Smith’s ideas. The result: a wildly successful business model that saved Motorola, by their own count, $16 billion.

Smith worked 35 years in engineering and quality assurance before joining Motorola and developing Six Sigma. It’s no surprise, then, that a system developed by an engineer can still benefit other engineers today.

Six Sigma Basics

Six Sigma, based on a data-driven methodology, has three basic components: the number of units produced, the number of defect opportunities per unit and the number of actual defects found. These basic numbers can help determine your baseline Sigma.

While it started in manufacturing, Six Sigma can apply to any type of business or even personal process (perhaps you can make those household chores more efficient). But in large corporations, making even incremental changes can result, as the Motorola case shows, in large cost savings.

Used properly, Six Sigma methodologies improve processes by eliminating defects and raising the quality of a product while also streamlining production and eliminating wasted time, money and resources. Six Sigma also focuses on adding value to your product for customers.

Those certified for Six Sigma are identified by belt levels. A Yellow Belt has a basic understanding of Six Sigma terminology, and is a team member on small-scale projects. A Green Belt is someone who is an expert in Six Sigma philosophies and dedicates between 25-50% of their working time to Six Sigma projects. A Black Belt typically serves as a project leader and is responsible for managing multiple teams made up of mostly Green and Yellow Belts.

Six Sigma also drives innovation. Once an area that needs improvement is identified, people must work to come up with ideas on how to improve them.

Six Sigma has two main processes. DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) typically applies to manufacturing or production and is used when improving existing processes. DMADV (define, measure, analyze, design, verify) is used to create new processes and proves most applicable to customer relations.

Engineering and Six Sigma

Engineers generally work in complex operations involving many different processes, people and projects. Utilizing DMAIC or DMADV methodologies can prove useful, particularly for industrial engineers who oversee large-scale manufacturing processes with a focus on making them more efficient.

Other areas of engineering where Six Sigma can make a difference:

Design engineers – Usually working in the early stages of product development, design engineers look for issues in a product from the perspective of customer requirements.

Process engineers – Much like industrial engineers, they look “under the hood” of a manufacturing process, searching for ways to improve processes and make them efficient.

Systems engineers – They evaluate operations at all levels, looking not only at manufacturing efficiencies but also cost analysis and the allocation of resources to projects.

Leadership and Management

While Six Sigma methodology might prove most applicable to certain engineer jobs, it also provides the skills and knowledge that can benefit those in leadership and management roles across all engineering professions.

Some key areas where Six Sigma can benefit an engineer include the following:

Reducing inefficiencies – This remains the primary goal of Six Sigma. While typically associated with manufacturing, it can apply to any process requiring improved efficiency.

Problem-solving – If your organization (or the one you hope to work for) utilizes Six Sigma as a tool for overcoming challenges beyond creating new efficiencies, then getting certified in Six Sigma can provide even more benefits. Areas where Six Sigma proves applicable include:

Career enhancement – In a meritocracy-like private enterprise, the person with the best ideas usually wins. Having knowledge of Six Sigma methodology, and success in applying it, can make an engineer a leader in management and innovation.

Combined, these skills can lead to promotion and some of the most challenging and rewarding jobs in the engineering field. It can also make for a more attractive job candidate and higher salaries.

A certification in Six Sigma provides lifelong skills that not only help your organization but also enhance your career. Those receiving certification will have training in defining projects, picking project team members, identifying areas that need improvement, and leading teams to innovate and find solutions,.

For engineers who want to move into management positions, these skills can lead to some of the top jobs in the profession and make you a leader in driving innovation and change.