Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bill Smith :: Father of Six Sigma

 A Tribute to Bill Smith

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, Bill Smith graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952 and studied at the University of Minnesota School of Business. In 1987, after working for nearly 35 years in engineering and quality assurance, he joined Motorola, serving as vice president and senior quality assurance manager for the Land Mobile Products Sector.

Bill Smith, the Father of Six Sigma, introduced the statistical approach while working at Motorola, where it garnered the company financial benefits and numerous awards.

Bill Smith spent years convincing higher-ups that he really had invented a better mousetrap. Then he spent the rest of his life spreading the word to business professionals, government leaders and educators.

Smith's mousetrap? It was Six Sigma, the TQM spin off that has generated billions of dollars for Motorola, the company where Smith introduced his statistical approach aimed at increasing profitability by reducing defects. Smith, who earned the appellation, Father of Six Sigma, would probably be tickled to know Six Sigma has become so important that it even appears periodically in the widely syndicated comic strip, Dilbert.

As a Motorola employee, Smith did not share directly in the profits generated by the company's Six Sigma applications. However, over the years, he and Motorola garnered numerous awards and recognition for his vital work to improve profitability in America's manufacturing sector. He was especially proud of his role in Motorola's winning the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The Baldrige Award came in 1988, two years after Motorola implemented Smith's Six Sigma principles.

Smith's death, only five years later, caught everyone by surprise. He died of a heart attack at work.

Baldrige Award winners agree to share their quality programs with anyone who is interested. Hook said that since Motorola was the first company to win, others were eager to learn more about Six Sigma. 

He used to spend the last few years of his life traveling around, teaching and introducing Six Sigma to people. He was so appreciated wherever he went and people were really interested in it. Not surprisingly, the man behind the methodology was a passionate visionary and a great communicator. Bill Smith was also a perfectionist. Even at home.

In honor of Smith's talents and dedication, Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management established an endowed scholarship in Smith's name. Dean Donald P. Jacobs of the Kellogg School notified Motorola's Robert Galvin of the school's intention less than a month after Smith died. It was a fitting tribute to a man who influenced business students and corporate leaders worldwide with his innovative Six Sigma strategy.

As the one who followed most closely in his footsteps, Marjorie Hook is well-positioned to speculate about Bill Smith's take on the 2003 version of Six Sigma. "Today I think people sometimes try to make Six Sigma seem complicated and overly technical," she said. "His approach was, 'If you want to improve something, involve the people who are doing the job.' He always wanted to make it simple so people would use it."


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