Creative Quality with Lean Six Sigma

by Torrey Owens | June 28, 2020

Whether your creative team is agency side or client side, the creative process can be a storm, before quality even comes into play. Art is emotionally driven, while design has a problem-solving focus, not to mention all the personalities in the room. Adopting process can be seen as stagnating for creativity. Quality gives us a roadmap to move things forward and ground rules for staff keeps the egos at bay to allow us to focus on the client. Coming from a background of computer science and creative direction, Six Sigma is a great tool of choice, both for quality management and its philosophy.

Applying Six Sigma to creativity is not a new idea, it can however, be accompanied with push back if it is not promoted within the culture of the company. Historically, engineer Bill Smith introduced this process while working at Motorola in the 1980s. Six Sigma was first brought into manufacturing companies to improve production lines and reduce error. Some of the top marketing agencies such as Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy attempted to apply Six Sigma to its business with various results. Some opinions include that you cannot apply a Six Sigma methodology to creative because it could negatively impact innovation or that it leaves creatives uninspired. I disagree and I think that creative may have already adopted similar methodologies of Six Sigma through UIUX from a product development perspective. There can be a balance between form and function. Six Sigma sets a foundation to measure quality that may help beat your competition on cycle-time and speed-to-market which may produce a higher degree of success with new product launches.

Six Sigma is customer driven instead of problem driven which allows you to anticipate needs instead of always hustling to put out fires. Like in UIUX, it is the understanding of customer needs, their pain points, and desires for your product or services that allows for improvement. Waste and rework is now improvement, reduction, and prevention. I am not saying to eliminate the trial and error process or eliminate any blue-sky concepting, but incorporating a disciplined process, will be essential to optimizing the client-agency relationship. An experienced creative director should install a precise process to ensure that creative development is as effective and efficient as it can be.

Six Sigma is a method that provides organizations tools to improve the capability of their business processes. This increase in performance and decrease in process variation helps lead to defect reduction and improvement in profits, employee morale, and quality of products or services.

ASQ (source)

There are the five process phases in Six Sigma’s DMAIC model.

Define, measure, analyze, improve, and control (DMAIC) is a data-driven quality strategy used to improve processes. These phases can be implemented as part of Six Sigma or can be used as a separate tool, as a part of another improvement procedure.

ASQ (source)

Fruit Flies Like Green Bananas

When I was studying computer science at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, my Artificial Intelligence professor was discussing ambiguity in language and how the complexities of language affect how we interact with machines in HCI.

The English language, usually in casual conversation, may have a lot of ambiguity. For an example: Fruit flies like green bananas.Something as simple as this phrase could potentially have up to three meanings to someone. Does a piece of fruit actually fly like a green banana? Or, do fruit flies like green bananas? Do green bananas… even fly? A clear understanding of client needs is imperative to the success of a project and a good process will allow the team to transform inputs into outputs. Simply said, make sure that everyone is on the same page and if things are not clear in the project, talk to your champions or sponsors, but before moving forward, there has to be a clear understanding of the project before starting the concept/ideation phase. Often, the direction may be very broad or slightly vague, but it should fundamentally define the important aspects that prevent “shooting in the dark” ideation that usually results in dozens of rounds of iteration.

This is the Define portion of DMAIC where project goals are set and boundaries are established to align with the aims of the client and organization. Eliminate the ambiguity. This includes codifying your brand standards and knowing which of those brand standards are to be applied to a project before it starts. This helps insure during the concept phase that what is being designed can actually work in the medium being used. Having a lot of questions for the initial kick-off meeting will help with formulating a project plan.

What Gets Measured Gets Improved

In a world of smartphones and IOT, devices everywhere help us live our lives at the touch of a keypad. As designers we implement different techniques and processes like UX that enable us to create meaningful experiences. It aims to provide positive experiences that keep users loyal to the product or brand. Being able to define things like customer journeys, user stories, personas, heuristic analysis on your website are conducive to the business success and creates a meaningful user experience.

In Six Sigma, the Measure phase establishes a baseline and attempts to identify the core few X’s that are the prime drivers behind the problems we seek to address in a project. Metrics such as capturing the results of client feedback, proofreading or brand reviews can provide a measure of quality. This doesn’t mean measure everything! It just means identifying the most important objectives of the creative group and then capturing a limited amount of data that will allow people to see whether the group is performing against these objectives.

A hammer-anvil approach to capturing key indicators is not a good way of measuring how well a group is performing. It shouldn’t be a damper or stopwatch to the process. When choosing your method consider what will be an effective way to measure project cycle-time from project initiation to first draft. Measuring labor hours by project and calculating fully loaded costs for common types of projects can give a measure of processing.

Destroy Erase…

Usually the findings in the measure stage allow you to pinpoint root causes of poor performance. In Six Sigma, this is the analyze phase. You can use the data to further localize and understand the sources of the problem. It’s very important to confirm that the process is functioning as it should prior to analyzing the problem, otherwise risk the possibility of “false positives” during your results. Capturing the results of client feedback, proofreading and brand reviews not only measures quality, it provides tactics for continuous improvement.

…And Improve

In quality, if errors are caught early and analyzed, one may be able to see patterns emerge since some errors probably occur more frequently than others. Let’s say we find that certain designers have more difficulty with wireframes than other designers. Targeted training or management attention can be placed on these individuals. In Six Sigma, this is the improve phase. The idea is to identify and eliminate the root causes of errors so as to reduce the likelihood of these errors happening in the future. The improve stage could be considered as the pilot for change.

The Dichotomy

These are all good techniques to help ensure quality in product design, website design, apps, and services, but there is a dichotomy to having too much process. The work could become predictable, or boring. It may also cause a drop with productivity, idea generation, or a lack of motivation from your art directors, web developers, or UIUX team. In Six Sigma, the control phase ensures a long-term effective change on a larger scale, if the right mechanisms are put into place to ensure that problems stay fixed long after the team has been repurposed. Leaving open the possibility of improvement and adopting new best practices are also vital to the success of the project even long after post-mortem. I think a good example of that is the iPhone. Some may argue the validity of that from a granular perspective with regards to the iPhone features or price point compared to other smartphones, but from a 30,000 feet perspective, the iPhone is still the most widely used and popular smartphone according to Fox Business.

The whole idea is to get a higher degree of client and customer satisfaction. As mentioned earlier, Six Sigma is used to achieve high quality and low error rates of a mathematical target of errors as low as 3.4 per million items produced. For example, if a creative process produces something that satisfies a client’s need most of the time, it would be considered a pretty good process. A higher degree of accuracy may result in stifling the kind of creativity that totally wows the client — and creates incredible loyalty, true client delight and potentially significant impact on the business. There are definitely elements in Six Sigma that can be successfully applied to creative quality.

Improve constantly and forever for every process for planning, production and service. Continually improve test methods and identify problems, from that very first planning stages right up to distribution to customers.

-William Edwards Deming

As with most things, a tried and true process just makes things better!

About Me

I am a Creative Director and Designer with over fifteen years experience working across disciplines through client-side and top tier advertising agencies. If you would like learn more about my creative process visit

A trusted guide who uncovers the deep needs of users and customers by combining the fundamental problem-solving roots of design and deep empathy. (He/Him/His)