All comments posted on this blog do not reflect the opinions of any organization that I am affiliated with. These are my personal perspectives only.

Monday, July 30, 2007

6 Sigma & Innovation

There was an interesting 6 Sigma article in Business Week last month that looked at 6 Sigma and innovation. The article questioned whether 6 Sigma kills innovation with a primary reference to the demise of 3M's innovation hold.

The DMAIC model (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) seems to make a lot of sense when driving efficiencies in existing processes. It provides focus on rigorous statistical analysis. The phrase "you can't improve what you can't measure" is often used, as is the term, "the voice of the customer" which implies focus on what the customer sees as success. Both of these concepts if applied to innovation can result in missed opportunities or even worse.

According to Eric von Hippel, MITSloan School of Management professor, "rigorous statistical analysis to produce unambiguous data that help produce better quality, lower costs, and more efficiency. That all sounds great when you know what outcomes you'd like to control. But what about when there are few facts to go on—or you don't even know the nature of the problem you're trying to define? "New things look very bad on this scale."

If we consider some of the leaders of 6 Sigma, how many would we consider as current leaders in innovation? I'm not sure. The companies often discussed are Motorola (the father of 6 Sigma), Dell Computers, GE. Each of these 3 companies have arguably lost their innovative edge. Could this be because of 6 sigma philosophy that has permeated into innovation?

According to Christensen's work from The Innovators Dilemma, truly disruptive innovation, is NOT what the customers want or what the shareholders want (until it's too late). Radical innovative concepts are simply too radical without proven ROI. In fact, too many companies have failed to jump the curve because they were "held hostage by their customers" and/or shareholders. Christensen uses the examples of diskdrives to explain his point.

In my opinion, 6 Sigma is a proven toolset on driving efficiencies, process management and quality control. Does it mean, I would apply it to everything? No! Just because I have a hammer doesn't mean everything is a nail. Knowing when to apply it, and when not to apply it is critical. When dealing with innovation, be cautious on the limitations you force upon your people through your processes.
What are your thoughts? I know there are some blackbelts in 6 Sigma reading this and would love to hear your thoughts.


Anonymous said...,1540,2159181,00.asp

Here is another article that supports the concern between innovation and 6 Sigma

Bertrand Duperrin said...

I have a note about that in my drafts but didn't find time to finish it so your post is welcome.

6 sigma is something really very efficient...when you need to reduce deviations. It's relevant in a lot of cases, for example in a production line and, more generally, when sticking to a process is key.

The issue is, talking about innovation, that everything is about deviation. Without deviation you will always reproduce the same things.

Rex Lee said...

Thanks Bertrand for the comment. I agree whole heartedly.

William said...

Apart from the DMAIC (used for improving existing process), there is the DFSS (Design for 6Sigma) that is mainly aimed at degining new process.
Basically, you start by identifiying the customer of your future process and you gather their needs and requirements. Then you use some brainstorming tools to find solutions that meet those needs.

This latest step, to me, should be the one when the innovation come true. This is why I don't fully agree with all the fuzz around the lack of innovation with 6Sigma

Rex Lee said...

Thanks for the comment William. I'll admit, that I am not an expert in DFSS, and appreciate your thoughts. One of the arguments raised in the articles is that asking customers what their needs/requirements are may limit creativity. The focus on needs however may help ensure we don't get to specific too early.