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Six Sigma

Researcher Asks Motorola to Withdraw Six Sigma Trademark

Says capitalization gives false impression that Six Sigma is more significant than other methodologies

Published: Monday, May 15, 2017 - 10:21

(Quality Digest: Chico, CA) -- In January 2017 Richard Schonberger, researcher and author of Best Practices in Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement (Wiley, 2009) issued an open letter to Motorola published in ISE magazine asking the company to withdraw Six Sigma as a copyrighted term.

Six Sigma is a methodology in wide use in process-improvement endeavors. It was copyrighted in 1993 by its developer, Motorola Corp., which renewed the copyright in 2003 and 2013.

The oddity, says Schonberger, is that the term, in published matter, is always capitalized, to the “consternation of writers and editors.”

As Schonberger explains in the letter, the purpose is to “allow the term to be printed as ‘six sigma,’ a common noun for a methodology recognized globally as a decidedly uncommon contribution of Motorola to the vast body of knowledge in quality assurance.”

This simple change, says Schonberger, will allow writers, editors, and readers to no longer be confused when they see Six Sigma written in the same sentences with lean, statistical process control, supply chain management, and other common improvement practices, which are generally in lower case. In many publications (such as Quality Digest), Six Sigma as a program is capitalized to differentiate it from six sigma, a statistical term.

Although capitalizing Six Sigma would seem to be a small issue, it warps people’s understanding and appreciation of good grammar, says Schonberger. “More important, in practice it can give the usually false impression that the capitalized term, Six Sigma, is more significant than the other process-improvement terms and concepts that are lower case in nearby passages,” he explains.

The open letter in ISE is signed by a group of 17 researchers and authors, many of whom are chaired professors at major universities, and all of whom write a lot about Six Sigma and process improvement.

The open letter simply requests that Motorola withdraw the trademark, which would end the requirement to capitalize the term.

Getting to a responsible party at Motorola required Schonberger to search through the company’s history of changes in ownership. Motorola Solutions, now headquartered in Chicago, disinvested from Motorola Mobility, the phone division, in 2011, which was in turn briefly owned by Google and is now a subsidiary of Lenovo, the Chinese company. The Six Sigma trademark ended up owned by Motorola Mobility/Lenovo, says Schonberger.

On July 7, 2016, Schonberger emailed a draft of the open letter to the responsible person in Motorola Mobility’s Legal Department. The attorney, David Carroll, was helpful, says Schonberger. Carroll responded the same day and explained that Motorola did not “register” Six Sigma in capital letters; that’s just the way, in trademark matters, that the term gets approved (either that way or by using the trademark symbol).

“I notified Mr. Carroll that we would proceed with the open letter,” says Schonberger, “but requesting just that Motorola withdraw the trademark—a simple solution to the capitalization issue. There was no further response from Mr. Carroll or anyone else in his organization.”

Schonberger is hoping that the open letter might lead Lenovo to want to avoid negative publicity and withdraw the trademark.

Motorola told Quality Digest that it had no comment on Schonberger’s request at this time.


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For 38 years Quality Digest has been the go-to source for all things quality. Our newsletter, Quality Digest, shares expert commentary and relevant industry resources to assist our readers in their quest for continuous improvement. Our website includes every column and article from the newsletter since May 2009 as well as back issues of Quality Digest magazine to August 1995. We are committed to promoting a view wherein quality is not a niche, but an integral part of every phase of manufacturing and services.