How Six Sigma Promotes a Culture of Innovation

by Dan Blacharski

How Six Sigma Promotes a Culture of Innovation - Innovation ExcellenceIt’s nearly two years since psychologist Gary Klein’s book was on the Forbes Noteworthy Book of 2014 list, but that wasn’t the end of Klein’s “Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight.” The propensity to quote Klein, and his view on how creativity may be stifled by the Six Sigma process at companies desperately seeking to develop a culture of innovation, hasn’t shown signs of abating – as was the case in a recent LinkedIn piece by thought leader Don Peppers that also ran in Inc.

Peppers follows the oft-quoted Klein logic that it’s the structural approach to quality, with its focus on reducing errors, that contributes to stagnation within those systems and stifles the creative impulse.

Pepper’s conclusions, also drawing from 3M R&D team complaints that the Post-It note would never have existed if Six Sigma practices had been enforced – itself a frequent enough repetition to have covered the entire city of Minneapolis in sticky notes by now – assume that there’s only one kind of creativity that leads to innovation. It’s all disorderly chaos, and methodology is mutually exclusive in the processes that lead to exploration and insight and discovery, those eureka moments of real invention.

Taken to its extremes, one would have to dispense entirely with the scientific method of inquiry to buy into the critique, at least with respect to some of the stages of the creative process and the R&D role. “It’s an oversimplification to suggest that Six Sigma always has a chilling effect on innovation because of its emphasis on metrics and method and conformation to standards, thereby shutting down the timid who are afraid of the error part of trial-and-error, or those responsible for the cost justification of it,” said Mike DiLeo, president of Management & Strategy Institute, a provider of online, self-paced certification courses in Six Sigma.

That the Six Sigma culture, because of its emphasis on planning and measurement, is incompatible with innovation isn’t necessarily the case. It wouldn’t be Six Sigma without an emphasis on metrics, so it’s fair to acknowledge that some businesses, 3M among them, have changed their approaches to rely less on a quality structure with the “error” priorities of the first iterations of Six Sigma and other methodologies. Today’s Six Sigma applications, however, have long since evolved from the first manufacturing models.

Pepper, citing a 10-year-old Forbes magazine article, discusses the 91 percent of large firms where Six Sigma was in use who, looking to understand their lackluster performances, pegged it to their lack of innovation. Like Klein, he sees that as a cultural problem in systems where insights fail to flourish. But all the emphasis on insight or its relationship to intuition seems, well, counterintuitive. The basic premise in these and similar quality v. creativity critiques is that there are two narrowly defined and conflicting processes at work and that there is no creativity within the rigid-rules Six Sigma framework of quality.

What may be an even bigger mistake is to assume that it is no framework for imagination or ideas that support rather than limit the entrepreneurial spirit, and that boundaries are just big-thinking buzzkill.

The champions of the innovation culture that so many business leaders seek to embed within their companies, to infuse into their organizations so that essential creativity is in the corporate DNA, aren’t wrong. But this trend – toward a mindset that believes that profitable results are possible only within an unfettered climate with no sacred cows, in which big-picture ideas thrive – itself misses that big picture.

Klein’s framing of the problem, which emphasizes that error reduction is the only goal of Six Sigma while insight that leads to innovation must be protected from its methodology, limits both. It’s hard to explain why the strength that Six Sigma methods bring to bear on identifying areas for improvement in products and process is overlooked, or why the emphasis on problem-solving that is foundational to Six Sigma isn’t rightly understood as a creative process itself, unless what it means to be creative is misidentified.

Further, the Six Sigma emphasis on collaboration and team-building unleashes the power of ideas and their synergies when a company’s frequently cross-functional team members connect to think about possibilities rather than problems – and those teams rely on the imagination of each individual member.

Businesses are racing to capitalize on connectivity in any way they can leverage it, in an era of cultural and technological change that makes it a reality across their business units and is blurring differences between them. So why does it follow that the Six Sigma commitment to quality and value creation, as applied in industries as diverse as healthcare, education, government or retail, need to stay in its silo?

It’s a valid question because, in underlying the tensions both perceived and real between the dual goals of reducing errors and increasing insights, Klein revisits the idea of the “ambidextrous organization” in his book. What he looks at, in short, is research published in 2004 in Harvard Business Review that finds successful companies able to achieve both objectives when they keep them on separate parallel tracks.

In other words, there’s still an emphasis on creating a culture where the mature processes of the firm continue to “reduce errors” through conformity and paperwork, while the innovation thinkers don’t have to deal with all of those rules and expectations that handcuff them and thwart their inspiration and their genius. The former may benefit from Six Sigma training and practice; it has no value for the latter.

“That’s precisely where the misunderstanding of Six Sigma and its value within an organization lies,” said DiLeo. “If we assume that the techniques and tools are what we need to release our ‘creative’ employees from, rather than understanding Six Sigma methodology among the skill sets needed to free creativity itself.”

The spark of innovation can never occur within an organizational culture based on Six Sigma and the continual transformation that becomes routine. Insights are accidental, Klein argues. Not necessarily, because there is more than one kind of insight and they’re derived from an infinite pool of variables and experiences. What’s not accidental at all is an investment in the training to know what insight looks like when you see it – and what to do about acting on those insights that translate to creating real value.

image credit: sixsigma.com

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Dan Blacharski is senior contributing analyst at Compass Intelligence, a market acceleration research and consulting firm; and the founder and senior PR counsel at Ugly Dog Media, a thought leadership, and public relations consultancy.