by Alan Ramias

“If I try to thank all the people claiming credit for this movie, I wouldn’t know where to begin.” — Bill Murray, accepting a Golden Globe award for his role in the movie Lost in Translation

Everyone interested in business processes seems to know that Six Sigma was invented at Motorola and that Motorola became the first winner of the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award in 1988. The origin of Six Sigma has been the subject of countless articles, a series of Harvard Business School cases , and many books. What happened 20 years ago might not matter much anymore except that many practitioners continue to refer to the Motorola experience for inspiration and practical models. Meanwhile, as someone who was present at the dawn of Six Sigma and a participant in the early design of Motorola’s approach to process improvement, I am often amused, and sometimes appalled, at the descriptions I’ve read in various publications.

So this is a recitation of some of the myths versus the realities, from my personal point of view. I was hired by Motorola in 1981 as a member of the Motorola Training and Education Center (MTEC), the start-up corporate training department that evolved into Motorola University. One of my assignments at MTEC was to work with consultant Geary Rummler and others to develop what became Motorola’s first process improvement methodology. And after being transferred to the Semiconductor Products factory organizations in the Phoenix area, I sold and participated in the first large-scale process improvement initiatives that gave Motorola its reputation in the field of process. So I had a unique vantage point, both as observer and participant. On the other hand, I didn’t see everything that happened, or know all the participants, so this article has a decidedly narrow view (my own) and a modest purpose (what I think really happened).

Myth #1: Six Sigma was invented by…me! No, me! Me, me, me!

“Motorola is where Six Sigma began. A highly skilled, confident and trained engineer who knew statistics, Mikel Harry began to study the variations in the various processes within Motorola.”

“Like many companies at the time, Motorola didn’t have one ‘quality’ program, it had several. But in 1987, a new approach came out of Motorola’s Communications Sector—at the time headed by George Fisher, later top exec at Kodak. This innovative improvement concept was called “Six Sigma”.

“Alan Larson, one of the early internal Six Sigma consultants who later helped spread the concept to GE and AlliedSignal…”

“Six sigma per se didn’t exist twenty years ago. Miraculously, a single individual working for a large corporation in a cubicle at a nondescript office building saw something…the late Bill Smith, a reliability engineer at Motorola in Arizona…”

Jeez, what are the facts? Well, the biggest fact is that lots of people participated in the invention of Six Sigma over a long period of time, so there is plenty of credit to go around.

If you disregard the Charles Dickens quality of the quote about Bill Smith, it turns out to be the closest to the truth (except he didn’t reside in Arizona, Mikel Harry did). Bill Smith did write and circulate a technical paper on the definition of six sigma in the mid-80’s, and it did influence the thinking of many people to move away from a narrow focus on defects to the concept of process capability. But did he single-handedly invent Six Sigma? Don’t think so. Truth is, the efforts to improve quality through use of statistics went back to the early 1980’s, and the creation of Six Sigma as a program was essentially a repackaging of tools and methods going all the way back to Deming.

And the rest? Call it the triumph of the visible:

Mikel Harry (whose Ph.D. was in education, not engineering) was initially a consultant, then an employee at the Government Electronics Group in Arizona who got involved in capability studies, then became an instructor for Motorola’s quality training programs and did so well that he migrated to Motorola University, became head of the Six Sigma Academy and spoke to thousands of benchmarking teams about Motorola’s accomplishments. Naturally enough, some people assumed that he was not only a passionate advocate of Six Sigma, but its inventor.

George Fisher was an up and coming executive who strongly supported quality improvement. And he became Motorola’s CEO for a time. But did Six Sigma originate in his operation? That’s where Bill Smith worked, so you can see how the assumptions might arise. But the concepts and tools that went into the Six Sigma program came from many different places within Motorola.

And Alan Larson? Never heard of him. But he probably never heard of me either. That’s the point. So many contributors. To claim any one person was the inventor is to fall prey to the “great man” fallacy—that a major idea had to come from one person. If there is any truth to the supposition, there would be several great men—Deming, Juran and Geary Rummler—who provided the intellectual capital for Six Sigma.

Myth #2: Motorola won the Baldrige Award because of its Six Sigma program.

“The Six Sigma methodology was formalized in the mid-80’s at Motorola…. The result was a staggering increase in the levels of quality for several Motorola products and the inaugural Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award was bestowed on the company in 1988.” Six Sigma for Dummies

“Only two years after launching Six Sigma, Motorola was honored with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.” The Six Sigma Way.

Don’t you think it odd that a company can be so successful with a new program that it earns a national award for its achievements in just two years? Yeah, exactly. Motorola won the Baldrige Award not because of its formal Six Sigma program, kicked off in 1987, but because it had made truly awesome improvements in both quality and cycle time over the preceding 8 years. Those achievements were a result of all the TQM and BPI efforts going on and they weren’t viewed as a single comprehensive program, called “six sigma” or anything else…except in hindsight.

The Six Sigma goal was announced in 1987 and the methodology was packaged and rolled out in 1987-88. As a formal program, Six Sigma was barely in place when the Baldrige Award was obtained. The submission from Motorola for the Baldrige Award cited achievements from the entire 1980’s. I know, because I helped write portions of the submission package.

So where did that methodology come from? Six Sigma was actually a repackaging of tools and techniques already in place, and the program was rolled out because Motorola had essentially stalled in its improvement efforts. The company suffered a severe downturn in 1985-86 when Japanese manufacturers invaded the memories chip market and wiped out Motorola’s memories division. The company went into shock and it was not until mid-1987 that things stabilized and attention began to be paid to improvement again. But by that point cycle time was more the focus.

Quality fell off the radar, partly because a lot of people were plain tired of the quasi-religious atmosphere that accompanied TQM and partly because managers began to recognize that some of the quality problems were due to wait times, inventory mismanagement and other issues related to long cycle times.

The other driver for Six Sigma was customers. One of Motorola’s biggest customers was Ford Motor Co., which began to require six sigma quality and on-time performance. Its insistent demands were a huge impetus for the revival of improvement efforts.

Myth #3: Six Sigma was Motorola’s approach to process improvement.

In the early 1980’s, Motorola’s approach to quality was a quality circles program called participative management (or PMP). MTEC was created to produce training products to support that effort, at first primarily for factory production workers and later for technicians and engineers. Those training programs were the origins of much of today’s six sigma methodology. But none of it was considered “process improvement”. The focus was on product defects; the word “process” referred only to the manufacturing process, and later to the product design process. Business processes were not what anyone meant by “process”.

Meanwhile, MTEC brought in consultant Geary Rummler to help design a performance-based approach to development of instructional programs. While working with the manager of the manufacturing curriculum, Paul Heidenreich, Geary conducted a broad study of manufacturing operations, using a variety of analytical tools that included process analysis. Paul recognized the potential value of these tools and sponsored the development of a training program that evolved into an approach to process improvement, called OPS. This program was the origin of what became the well-known Rummler-Brache process improvement and management methodology. It was applied in many Motorola organizations, usually to the issue of cycle time improvement, and achieved phenomenal results that were included in the 1988 Baldrige submission. OPS was aimed at business processes and management teams, while the quality programs were aimed at product design and manufacturing employees, which may be why for a time nobody put two and two together and saw that these efforts were—or should be—linked.

It was not until 1988, when process capability became of interest and Rummler’s approach to process improvement had become well-known throughout Motorola, that the quality and process sides became joined. According to Mark Schleicher, who also worked at Motorola University and developed its first six sigma training program, the Six Sigma initiative “made the quality message clear and consistent. It was not DMAIC at that time but a focus on variation and defects that link back to the customer via the product. The original emphasis was really Design for Six Sigma, linking the customer to both the product design and the manufacturing processes.”

Thus in 1988, MTEC (by then renamed Motorola University) issued its first six sigma training program which contained techniques from previous PMP/TQM courses and from Rummler’s improvement methodology. Motorola University had by then bought a license for Rummler’s tools, concepts and methods so they could freely integrate these things into their programs. All departments were trained in Six Sigma concepts and tools. Even staff groups like HR were required to attend a non-statistical version of Six Sigma training and to improve their processes.

Eventually, these process improvement tools and methods spread far beyond Motorola when the company mandated that all of its vendors be trained in improvement techniques. Motorola University itself taught these courses—imbedded with Rummler ideas and methodology—to all of those supplier companies. Meanwhile, Rummler wrote his landmark book, Improving Performance, which was instrumental in spreading the concepts and tools of process improvement and management to organizations all over the world, and while Motorola was not explicitly cited as the laboratory in which many of the ideas were conceived, tested and refined, those who knew Rummler and followed his work understood that much of the content of Improving Performance was based on Rummler’s experiences at Motorola.

What does any of this history matter now? Here are a few lessons to consider:

  • Organizational transformations do not happen quickly. Motorola’s journey from duckling to swan took the better part of 10 years, propelled by a series of business crises and a lot of fumbling around.
  • Most of the ideas came from outside. Motorola deserves the credit for recognizing the importance of concepts in quality, process and performance and opening its doors to new ideas, but virtually all the tools and how-to knowledge came from a large cadre of outsiders. Juran, Deming, Dorian Shainin, Richard Schonberger, Rummler were the true sources of Motorola’s approach. And the drumbeat of customer demand, from Ford and others, was also a source for both ideas and inspiration.
  • There was no grand plan. Only in hindsight can a path be dimly seen.  CEO Bob Galvin issued a challenge to the company in the early 1980’s (10X improvement in 5 years) and then a second one in 1987 (100X improvement in 4 years) and the organizational response both times was a lot of head-scratching and scoffing.  The man-on-the-street response to the call for six sigma in 1987 was simultaneously, “It can’t be done” and “We’ve already done that,” depending on your interpretation of what Galvin was asking for.

Yet much was accomplished.  In addition to huge improvements in product quality and cycle time, Motorola succeeded in creating a strong organizational culture.  By the early 1990’s, no matter where you were in the company, no matter who you talked to, every last employee was keenly aware of the importance of meeting customer requirements, of producing world-class products quickly and flawlessly. Every employee, even in those staff departments far distant from the manufacturing line, had participated in mapping processes, identifying disconnects, streamlining tasks by cutting out waste, and reinventing how work should be done. It is indeed still an inspirational story.


Gogan, Janis L., “Motorola: Institutionalizing Corporate Initiatives,”, Harvard Business School, 1994, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston MA.

Eckes, George, Six Sigma for Everyone, 2003, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ.

Pande, Peter S., Robert P. Neuman and Roland R. Cavanaugh, The Six Sigma Way: How GE, Motorola, and Other Top Companies are Honing their Performance, 2000, McGraw-Hill, New York

Pande, Peter S., Robert P. Neuman and Roland R. Cavanaugh, The Six Sigma Way: How GE, Motorola, and Other Top Companies are Honing their Performance, 2000, McGraw-Hill, New York.

Gygi, Craig, Neil DeCarlo and Bruce Williams, Six Sigma for Dummies, 2005, John Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

Rummler, Geary A. and Alan P. Brache, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart, 1992, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

About the Author
Alan Ramias is a partner of the Performance Design Lab (PDL). PDL is a consulting and training organization with decades of expertise in performance improvement. Alan started in this kind of work at Motorola. He joined the Rummler-Brache Group (RBG) in 1991; led improvement projects at many companies such as Shell, Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Citibank, Steelcase, Citgo, Hermann Miller, Louisiana-Pacific, and Bank One; and became managing director of consulting services, responsible for selecting, training, and overseeing RBG’s consultant teams. He is the co-author of the books White Space Revisited: Creating Value through Process and Rediscovering Value: Leading the 3-D Enterprise to Sustainable Success.