There has been a lot of ink spilled lately dithering about Six Sigma and Innovation. Most of it by naysayers who feel that Six Sigma is antithetical to Innovation, or zealots who feel some version of the opposite sentiment. For the life of me, I can’t wrap my mind around either position.

To illustrate my view, let’s talk about some other processes you find in most organizations – perhaps budgeting and talent development. Most businesses have at least an annual budgeting process and an annual talent development process. These are fundamental, and exist in most places out of necessity. Clearly the two have links: it takes money to develop and retain talent, and it takes high caliber people to manage all aspects of cashflow and propel the organization forward. Without good talent development there would eventually be no budget to allocate, and without good budgeting all the talent in the world isn’t going to matter after a couple of quarters.

So talent development and budgeting are both necessary for the success of the organization, but neither is sufficient. Hardly an interesting observation, right? Now suppose someone told you that “your budget process is killing your talent development process.” Well, it could be true, and if so you’d have to fix it. But suppose they went on to say that “talent development is much more important, so you should get rid of the budget process.” That’s ridiculous, right? The very idea makes no sense.

But that’s exactly the argument that is made regarding Six Sigma and Innovation. If I had a nickel for every article I’ve read concluding that Six Sigma kills Innovation so we should jettison Six Sigma, well, I’d probably have about a dollar. But you get my point.

There are two things wrong with this conclusion, regardless of how it is reached. The first one is described above. Six Sigma and Innovation are two separate but related processes that must co-exist in a healthy organization. Both are necessary and neither is sufficient for success. Suggesting that one should be pursued to the exclusion of the other is infantile thinking. I don’t care what you call the attendant programs, but new ideas need to be encouraged and developed, and continuous improvement needs to occur. Of course, Six Sigma can’t be the Innovation program either. Organizations that lack an Innovation program and try to make Six Sigma stand in for it are bound to be disappointed. If you have no talent development process, having a great budget process isn’t going to help.

So the first thing wrong with the conclusion that Six Sigma kills Innovation is that it suggests an opposition between the two processes, falsely implying a choice that isn’t there. You don’t get to choose one or the other. Both are necessary. The trick is to make them work together, just like budgeting and talent acquisition.

The second thing wrong with the conclusion is that, properly structured, Six Sigma and Innovation have an intrinsically synergistic relationship, not an antagonistic one. Just like budgeting and talent development do when properly executed. Despite what you may have read, process and structure are not natural enemies of Innovation. Bad process and inappropriate structure…maybe those are enemies of Innovation, but then they are the enemy of many other things in the organization too. A bad Innovation program will certainly be a drag on your Continuous Improvement program, and vice versa. But as I have pointed out many times before, the conclusion that poorly run programs perform poorly is not useful or interesting.

It has been my experience that well-run Six Sigma programs generate a tidal wave of new insights and ideas. Indeed, managing the flow of those ideas becomes a central, consuming, happy problem for successful programs. This is true even when a very structured approach is taken. I’m reminded of a story I was once told about an author who decided to write an entire novel without using the letter “e”. You’d think this would be incredibly limiting, but in fact the author ended up learning many, many new words and taking his writing in entirely new directions. The structure forced him to break old habits and think in new ways.

Arecent New York Times article by Janet Rae-Dupree makes this point in fascinating depth. Here’s a tease:

“So it seems antithetical to talk about habits in the same context as creativity and innovation. But brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.”

Far from killing it, a well-deployed Six Sigma program (or any structured approach to continuous improvement) can be a great partner to Innovation. The reverse point is also true, that Innovation can help Six Sigma. I’m not going to construct an argument to support my belief that Innovation is a necessary component of Continuous Improvement, as I take it to be true almost by definition.

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