Six Sigma: Innovation-killer?

Arik Johnson’s e-newsletter — “ReconG2 Weekly” (15 October 2007) — from Aurora Worldwide Development Corp. (a competitive intelligence firm) asks this question: Have you ever considered that innovation only really happens when companies make mistakes?

What then happens when organizations become so obsessed with quality and performance — for example, the Six Sigma revolution of the past few years — that mistakes are specifically engineered out of the system?

Consider, for example, the oft-told story behind 3M’s Post-it Notes, after its inventor, Art Fry, spent years searching for a valuable application of an oddball new adhesive that wouldn’t stay stuck before the product finally went into production in 1980.

Fast forward 20 years and you would find that “Spirit of Innovation” under the decidedly more results-oriented gaze of CEO Jim McNerney, where during his tenure from 2000 to 2005 the company became a kind of poster child for Six Sigma….

But today’s 3M finds CEO George Buckley and his management rolling back many of the company’s Six Sigma initiatives, having found the program incompatible with the spirit of innovation that made 3M great in the first place.

Invention, after all, is inherently risky, wasteful and chaotic… exactly the conditions Six Sigma seeks to eliminate.

BusinessWeek (11 June 2007) covered the same territory in a story headlined “3M: A Struggle Between Efficiency and Creativity” (excerpts below):

Buckley … is just the kind of guy who has traditionally thrived at 3M. It was one of the pillars of the “3M Way” that workers could seek out funding from a number of company sources to get their pet projects off the ground. Official company policy allowed employees to use 15% of their time to pursue independent projects. The company explicitly encouraged risk and tolerated failure. 3M’s creative culture foreshadowed the one that is currently celebrated unanimously at Google.

To help get the creative juices flowing, Buckley is opening the money spigot — hiking spending on R&D, acquisitions, and capital expenditures. The overall R&D budget will grow 20% this year, to $1.5 billion. Even more significant than the increase in money is Buckley’s reallocation of those funds. He’s funneling cash into what he calls “core” areas of 3M technology, 45 in all, from abrasives to nanotechnology to flexible electronics.

Quietly, the McNerney legacy is being revised at 3M. While there is no doubt the former CEO brought some positive change to the company, many workers say they are reinvigorated now that the corporate emphasis has shifted from profitability and process discipline to growth and innovation. Timm Hammond, the director of strategic business development, says “[Buckley] has brought back a spark around creativity.” Adds Bob Anderson, a business director in 3M’s radio frequency identification division: “We feel like we can dream again.”

Related articles (pro and con and in the middle):
TQM, ISO 9000, Six Sigma: Do Process Management Programs Discourage Innovation?
Does Six Sigma Stifle Innovation?
Innovation and Six Sigma Go Hand in Hand
Six Sigma and Business Innovation: Process or Passion?
Six Sigma and Innovation

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