I have struggled for sometime to appreciate the relationships between Lean Six Sigma and Innovation. Part of this is because I have never really given it much thought and also a couple of things worry me. I think I need to cover what this baggage is before talking about how I think they the two relate. But it’s a huge subject; I suspect the latest thinking is far beyond where I have got to so far.

My first concern is the incredible ability of people to innovate. Did Einstein have a secret black belt? Was Leonardo DaVinci an MBB? People are going to innovate regardless of Lean Six Sigma.Innovation happens in all industries from advertising to engineering and there are countless examples such as:

  • Henry Bessemer’s innovative development of the first inexpensive process for the mass production of steel
  • Thomas Edison’s innovative development of commercial light bulbs from Humphry Davy’s initial invention
  • Jethro Tull’s agricultural innovation of the seed drill for sowing seeds instead of being cast upon the ground.

My second concern is that I believe innovation is a very personal endeavour rather than a group endeavour. What I have seen a number of times is innovation happening like a spark, suddenly someone gets it, they have a startling flash of insight and the innovation occurs. The innovation may well happen in a group setting (e.g. brainstorm) but its still up to the individual.

Accepting the arguments that people are naturally innovative and innovation is essentially a personal endeavour where is the relationship with a team-based continuous improvement methodology?

It would seem that Lean Six Sigmacreates the conditions for targeted (customer, product & process) innovation in three ways.

Innovation is baked into the DMAIC approach; there is even a stage for it. So LSS starts by creating the conditions for innovation.

We have a wide range of tools to support innovation. I suspect there are a number we do not use, but it’s just a matter of research to get a comprehensive list.

We are on a continuous improvement journey. So each time we push the target, from 5 days to 5 hours, from 85% to 99%, from customer satisfied to customer promoter we have to innovate, there is no other option.

There are numerous other approaches, methodologies and tools you could use, but it seems LSS is built to order.

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