Motorola, change and the development of Six Sigma

Jeff Cole

Six Sigma is about much more than p-values, residuals, and improved processes. From the start it was intended to drive organizational transformation. This month columnist Jeff Cole speaks with Ed Bales, Program Manager at Motorola University, about his 47 years at Motorola and his involvement with the birth and growth of Six Sigma.

JC: Ed, thanks for talking with me. I know you came to Motorola in 1963 fresh out of the Navy and were later one of four people to start what became Motorola University. When you think of Motorola, you think cell phones and radios. You’ve indicated that during the early days Motorola was also a big name in the television business and there was a quality wake-up call. What was that?

EB: In the 1970’s we sold the Quasar brand (solid state works-in-a-drawer) television. We were proudly advertising a TV set that was the easiest to repair. The Japanese were advertising and selling TV’s which never needed repairs! In 1974, Motorola sold its entertainment business to Matsushita because we could no longer compete in that market. Within 18 months of the Japanese firm running the TV manufacturing operations, the defect rate dropped from approximately 125 defects per 100 TVs to 25 defects per 100 sets – using the same workforce.


JC: Amazing! Did that help stimulate the formation of Motorola University?

EB: This ‘wake-up call" led Motorola senior executives under CEO Bob Galvin to dramatically change the way Motorola operated. A new style of management (participative management), a new way to compete (global manufacturing) and new higher unheard of levels of quality (10X improvement) were mandated. However, management wisely realized that these dramatic changes would introduce a high level of incompetence in the workforce-not because they were not intelligent but because they did not know how to perform in new ways. Thus Motorola University was born.

JC: What was the role of Motorola University in driving change?

EB: Our role was to capture the best practices of exemplary performers and convert that into training programs which would ACCELERATE the transition of average performers into the exemplary model. Motorola University was not only a survival (early stage) strategy but helped lead the organization to be one of the premier corporations in the world. At first I thought we were in the training business but quickly learned that we were in the change business.

JC: I know you were a friend and colleague of Bill Smith, the Motorola engineer who developed Six Sigma. That helped Motorola win the very first Baldrige award in 1988. How did that come about?

EB: In 1985, Bill Smith was a quality engineer in one of the major businesses. He was constantly frustrated by the uncoordinated efforts at quality improvement within his business. He was also very concerned because his management reused to listen to his proposals for a new way to measure and drive quality improvements. Bill took his ideas directly to CEO Bob Galvin who listened. Bob told his VP of Quality, Jack Germain, to determine the best way to implement Bill’s ideas throughout Motorola.

Motorola University, in partnership with Bill and Jack, pulled together the top statistical and quality experts within Motorola and Six Sigma was born. In 1986, it was promulgated throughout the Corporation through a 3 day training program called "Design for Manufacturability" which was delivered to 14,000 engineers that year. The next year, a one-day program called "Understanding Six Sigma" was delivered to 55,000 non-technical employees. Training was being used as a catalyst for change by introducing new methodologies at every level within the organization. In addition, the measurement and rewards systems were modified to elevate the importance of quality improvements to the top of all performance measurements by individuals and departments. This process was so successful that it helped Motorola to win the first Malcolm Baldrige national quality award in 1988. The Baldrige examiners stated that wherever they went and whomever they talked to there was a common understanding and language of quality-it was Six Sigma. Six Sigma had become the common metric for all quality efforts throughout Motorola worldwide.

JC: Those had to be exciting times. A requirement of winning the Baldrige is that you share your story with others. You and Bill hosted people from around the world as they came to Motorola and first started hearing about Six Sigma. How was that experience?

EB: In 1989, Motorola began sharing the Six Sigma methodology with other organizations through monthly 6-hour "quality briefings" open to all. This led to the adoption of the methodology by many organizations and institutions. The Six Sigma methodology has grown and changed through the years so that today DMAIC and DMADV have become the models for continuous improvement in every possible work process and function. These are models which require change in most ways work is done. Understanding the statistical tools is not enough-change is required and understanding organizational and individual change is a most important part of the implementation of every Six Sigma initiative. So, Six Sigma training must include processes for change.

JC: Thanks Ed! You are one of the few people who can provide a first-hand insider’s look at the entire journey.

To contact Ed Bales, send a note to