Bob Galvin was CEO of Motorola from 1958 to 1986. He also founded the nonprofit Galvin Electricity Initiative.

Q Six Sigma principles have been great for manufacturing companies looking to improve the quality of their products. Can these ideas be applied to service firms?

Bill Southard
Southard Communications
New York City

First, a little background: Six Sigma is a system that Motorola (NYSE:MOT) developed in the 1980s. To compete with Japanese manufacturers, we wanted our products to have a low level of defects, as low as six standard deviations from the mean -- only 3.4 mistakes per one million opportunities.

Six Sigma can be implemented by companies of any type and size. No matter what kind of company you run, the process for implementing Six Sigma is the same. You have to create detailed descriptions of every job in the company, from reception to manufacturing. At Motorola, we mapped the jobs of several thousand people and let them know there was a way of doing each job exactly right.

Then you need to develop a system for measuring and improving each employee's performance. In every department, you should have one quality management "quarterback" of sorts who monitors the process and makes sure employees are held accountable.

To get started, you don't necessarily need to hire a certified Six Sigma consultant. But you do need someone with quality management experience. At the Galvin Electricity Initiative, a nonprofit electricity research group I founded in 2004, we offer a three-day course in quality management to anyone who wants to work with us, including entrepreneurs in the industry. That's about all the time you need to grasp the technique and the substance of Six Sigma.

You shouldn't look at this as a financial burden. A fair number of old instincts in business -- that it costs money to train employees or that perfection is too expensive -- are just the opposite of the truth. Motorola's commitment to Six Sigma concepts has saved the company billions of dollars over the years. Teach your employees the value of quality, and trust them to improve it. You'll be able to run a low-cost operation, because your employees will save you so much money by eliminating mistakes.