Design Thinking vs Six Sigma – Which is better for the Project Managers?

by Aripriya Basu November 30, 2020
Design thinking vs Six Sigma

Project management is what makes an IT services company. So to all project managers out there, take a bow! 

Not only do they ensure seamless project delivery but they also take the wrath of the clients if anything is to go amiss. 

In short, they are the frontline fighters. 

But only excellent communication skills and a good grasp of the technicalities don’t make excellent project managers. Their skills require a strategy boost. 

To that end, there are only two options for you as a next-gen project manager – Design Thinking and Six Sigma. 

But which one should you opt for? That is the question, which we will try to answer here. 

First things first, the Design Thinking process addresses the human-centered issues from a problem-solving designer’s point of view using specialized toolkits. 

Six Sigma, on the other hand, targets to deliver higher-end customer value within a close-ended process by ensuring consistent quality and by optimizing differences. 

Sounds simple, right? But yes, theoretical nonetheless. 

So let’s try the traditional approach of differences and similarities!

Same yet different

To keep the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate simple, let’s just say they solve different types of issues. 

Six Sigma focuses on delivering the customers with maximum value by eliminating bottlenecks. To that end, this approach takes quality, operations, and consistency into account. 

Six Sigma looks into providing incremental and continuous improvement to keep the customers satisfied.

While this approach highlights the “customer is the king” factor, the other component of the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate focuses on unraveling issues. 

Design Thinking plays the role of Sherlock Holmes and tries to identify problems being faced by stakeholders. Of course, it uses different perspectives to understand the issues.

The fundamental of this approach is to come up with creative, dynamic, radical, and unique ideas to solve a given issue. 

The product life cycle is a major differentiator in the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate. 

The Design Thinking process does not take the entire product life cycle into consideration. It just addresses a certain problem st any given time within the overall life cycle and tries to solve that. 

Six Sigma, however, takes interest in the entire product lifecycle and optimizes it to create a better value for the customers. 

So yes, you were right, both of these approaches take care of two different things. 

You need both of these approaches in project management and the Design Thinking vs six sigma debate does not stand a chance. 

But there is one similarly!

Both of these methods require genuine brainstorming to come up with problem-solving strategies. 

The differences and similarities can be confusing yes, so let’s try a table, shall we? 

Six Sigma

Design Thinking

  • Find out solutions to problems close by while eliminating innovative ideas that might be useful in the future
  • This encourages futuristic thinking especially addressing unique challenges that might seem impractical at first
  • Aims for continuous and incremental improvement
  • Outcome wise, this is drastic, radical, and comes up with unique solutions
  • This is ideal for close-ended operations that are causing some form of inefficiencies
  • This works best if you have to uncover some unique issue or highlight some issues you had no idea about
  • Techniques like Value Stream Mapping and X-Y matrix are often used
  • There are multiple techniques in this approach which include various methods of brainstorming and stakeholder mapping

But knowing only the difference in the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma game is not enough. 

That’s not what you are here for. 

How would you know which one is better for your project management? 

Of course, by knowing in-depth about each of these approaches. 

Let’s start with:

Design Thinking

The first component of our Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate, design thinking can be understood as a mindset that follows a particular pattern. 

This approach sort of puts humans right in the center of any issue while coming up with an ideal solution. 

This is basically done to understand and approach the problem from multiple perspectives.

 For instance, the emotional side, the mental impact, and so on. 

If you aim to use this component of the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma game then you will not only be solving the business issues but also drive value at the same time! 

Ideally, to solve an issue using this method, a project manager (that is you) will have to understand the issue from the customer’s or user’s point of view. 

After the identification of the problem, you have to come up with different solutions and ideas by analyzing the various challenges posed by the problems. 

But mind you, this is not a quick-fix approach. No Fairy Godmother is going to Wingardium Leviosa on your problem. 

You will have to do it on your own and that will take time. 

But why does it take so much time? 

Well, because it has five different steps and each must be undertaken. 

These are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test        

Let’s try this with an example:

Say your client wants to add a QA section on the landing page answering the most important queries that the visitors might have. 

But the issue is, the landing page does not have the space required. If you try to stuff in the QA section somehow, the page looks cluttered. 

Your client does not like the design and you have one day to whip up a quick fix. 

The website goes live in three days. 

So what now?

Well, one way is to add a bot QA assistant to that landing page or to redirect a link on that page to another part of the website which has the detailed QA section. 

Problem solved! 

So what did you do here? 

  • Empathize: Understood the issue the client was facing
  • Define: Defined the problem of space and QA
  • Ideate: Came up with two ideas to solve the issue 
  • Prototype: Implemented both on the staging server
  • Test: Ran tests to see which works best and selected that

So that was your Design Thinking approach. You found one concrete solution to the problem. 

However, the first component of the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate does not take the whole product cycle into consideration. 

Another example is P&G. 

The brand launched Swiffer after running the Design Thinking test. Check it out here

Six Sigma

Many of you are perhaps familiar with the second component of our Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate. 

Six Sigma is widely taught in most business schools. So you might have some notes in your stack of old books that you can look into. 

For those who are new to this concept, this is basically a business approach that targets to find and eliminate the weak points of a project so as to make it efficient. 

To quote business books, the target of Six Sigma is to lower the manufacturing defects to 3.4 per 1 million units. 

But Six Sigma is not just limited to manufacturing anymore. We would not be having the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate had that been the case. 

This approach is now widely being followed in project management. 

But the question is, when do you use this approach?

That question can only be answered by asking a few other questions:

  • What is the target of the project?
  • Is it to launch a new product/service?
  • Is it to enhance efficiency gains? 

Based on these questions you can use the Six Sigma method to

  • Reduce the loopholes in the end result
  •  To understand the reason behind a recurring issue 
  • To use the information judiciously and enhance the efficiency and productivity levels

But which one do you use for project management?

Answer: Both, depending upon the outcome you are looking for. 

There is no Design Thinking vs Six Sigma debate as such for both these approaches have great benefits when used together. 

While Design Thinking is used for the higher levels of project management to understand or uncover ill-identified or unidentified issues, Six Sigma can come in handy to enhance the customer experience. 

By reducing delays, eliminating waste, and errors you can win not only the hearts but also the future projects of your present clients!

Project management requires it all! Consistency, problem identification, on-time delivery of a future-ready approach, the whole deal! 

With the Design Thinking vs Six Sigma approach, you can get it all. There is no one approach. 

Both are crucial.


Can Six Sigma be used for an IT project?

Six Sigma is used widely by many IT firms to measure and improve internal operations. This includes network speed, reliability, and line-of-business operations. 

What are the values of Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a non-linear approach that project managers use to understand users and the various challenges faced by them. Additionally, it helps in identifying assumptions, redefines issues, and creates innovative solutions. 

Can Design Thinking and Six Sigma be used together? 

They are being used in combination by many companies in recent times. Many project managers are using these two processes and then adapting them to their own needs. Ideally, a project manager should take the fundamental elements of the framework and tweak it as per the specific project requirement.