Does Six Sigma Stifle Innovation?

The Wall Street Journal article “Rethinking Quality Improvement”, published this morning, raises the question of whether Six Sigma and new product development, research, and innovation can work together:

“The critics say process management helps improve existing products and routines, but can hinder a company’s ability to innovate. ‘For stuff you’re already good at, you get better and better,’ says Michael Tushman, a management professor at Harvard Business School. ‘But it can actually get in the way of things that are more exploratory.’”

Mr. Tushman obviously did not read “Designing for Perfection: Six Stories of Innovation with Six Sigma” published in iSixSigma Magazine(July/August 2005). I believe the answer lies in the stories of the companies that have used Six Sigma to innovate new products. Just ask, 3M, LG, Cummins, POSCO, Standard Register, or Bank of America… They will all tell you Six Sigma is at the heart of innovation, not the blade cuts its throat. If there is anything that stifles creative thinking most, it is negative thinking.

I invite you to make your comments and tell your stories of Six Sigma and innovation. Has it helped your company, or hindered it? There are always two sides to the story.

Comments 10

  1. Sandor Bende

    I agree 100% with the quote from WSJ "it can actually get in the way of" innovation. I think this depends on how Six sigma is implemented in a company – if you have a strong focus on data collection and analysis this can easily result in "analysis paralysis".

    The key for me is to find the right balance – not to rush into implementations without analyzing first but also not to avoid sensible improvements just because Six Sigma quality data is hard or impossible to come by.

    If the management of a company is afraid to take decisions then Six sigma can be a marvelous excuse for them – but this is hardly the fault of the methodology.


  2. HF Chris

    Human Factors usability perspectives work hand in hand with the application of six sigma during design. You don’t stifle innovation you just ensure it is applicable an usable.

    Just think of the the questions you ask: who is the customer (user), is it designed for their ability (parameters), do you have an understanding of the science behind the design…? Nobody says you can’t think out of the box, it just gives you a way to validate out of the box before you spend all your income.

    Without mentioning the company, there was once a company who developed a great innovative touch screen training and orientation package for all new employees, yet when implemented the new employees failed their tasks…..oops because it was a low paying job many of the users could not read.


  3. Turan Ayvaz

    Six Sigma does not promote innovation. Innovation requires one to make mistakes to a certain degree.

    If you do not make mistakes you cannot innovate. Therefore if a company wants to establish culture of innovation, six sigma is not the solution. Usually companies apply six sigma when there is no innovation within the firm and their market share is tight because their products come to the end of their market cycle.

    Innovation is an exploratory process, but Six Sigma is about exploitation of existing products.

  4. Mike Carnell

    The largest hindrance to innovation is the experiential prism that people must gun everything through to comprehend any situation and/or problem that confronts them. We have seen repeatedly in many Six Sigma projects were using data, qualifying measurement systems, and testing new ideas has freed peoples minds for new ideas.

    When beliefs are tested with data they are either validated or rejected based on facts. Once a clear set of facts are established it creates context and understanding for a problem. It will frequently change the proverbial box that people live in. Rather than assisting them with cute sayings such as “think outside the box” (it sounds very managerial but is of very little help) step up and show some leadership and create a realistic box for them to innovate in.

    With the rate of change that we see today it only makes sense that experience atrophies at a similar rate. People need a way to separate what is relevant from what is no longer relevant and the SS methodology will do that by design. Does it create new ideas? No. In the hands of people with vision it can help create the environment and opportunity for innovation.

    How many Six Sigma projects are actually created to implement old known solutions? The intent should be to identify a new solution otherwise what id the point of the project? If you cannot find innovation in your current projects there may be something seriously wrong with your project selection process!

  5. vishwanath

    Six sigma is Business improvement tool & it can help us in continuous improvement methods.during six sigma evolution also it was clearly told it as Improvement tool but innovation tool.

    Innovation is different from Six sigma, but DFSS will certainly lead you to innovation, other tools are Green Y Analysis, robust engineering.

  6. Mike Carnell

    You can either speak from what you have been told or you can speak from what you experience. The output of Six Sigma is a controlled process relative to where the project begins. The input is uncontrolled at some level so it has become a project. If the solution is known it should not be a project. You go from point A to point B without a known solution. How do you do that without innovation at some level. It cannot be done.

    If you operate from a level that says this tool does this and that tool does that you will have truncated results because that is a very superficial level of understanding of how people think and behave and what the tools are capable of producing.

    Just my opinion.

  7. Todd Mikula

    Very interesting perspectives!

    Six SIgma can promote what ever you want it to promote. The methodology is designed to meet customer rquirements. Why can’t I innovate and use Six Sigma to be sure that my first generation solution at least mets (or better yet, exceeds) customer expectations?

    Where I work, Six Sigma has inpsired innovation within the teams and management. With our rigorous approach to root cause analysis, we are constantly looking at innovative approaches to solving our problems. Remember, Six Sigma promotes optimization! How can you optimize without being innovative.

    In conclusion…don’t blame Six Sigma for cultural issues or personal biases.

  8. Dan Moody

    Where I work, they try to force Six Sigma on everyone. I do not believe this tool is for everyone. Many employees are service related. Give them a job to do and let them do it with the tools they use. Many people are just not ’wired’ for the type of thought processes that Six Sig,a requires.

    Some problems here that have been assigned to Six Sigma require only simple solutions.

    I have seen MANY times where the creation/completion of a Six Sigma project came up with the same solution a 10 min. thought process came up with and took 1000x more time to complete.
    I have seen people loose a lot of time doing ACTUAL work they are trained at, just trying to figure out how to do their SIx Sigma project. I sometimes wonder if this REALLY saves the company money when their employee is much less productive in this manner.

    I’m sorry, but I believe some solutions to problems are just obvious and companies that shove Six Sigma down every employee’s throat are doing so at a steeper price than they imagine.

  9. Mike Connor

    I worked under Six Sigma in a major financial institution and it was a disaster. The methodology places constraints on everything you do, from thinking for yourself to the amount of work you process.

    At the financial company I worked for, everything you did was timed and if you did not perform that action (or in our case, problem solving) in the allotted time, you were out the door–no if’s, and’s or but’s. This new way of thinking and working will hopefully fall by the wayside the same way the corporate thinking was changed with the book titled the 1 minute manager.

    Management is about solving problems, assisting employees and making the workplace more productive…This cannot be changed by a new “approach” that essentially places more stress on employees to produce more, with less errors. This type of atmosphere leads to higher turnover, which increases expenses for training new employees to replace the ones that left, not to mention the lower morale of employees that get their monthly “report card” and are told time and time again that they did not meet their goal of 100%.

    It is impossible to solve all problems in a given amount of time (unless of course all the problems are exactly the same). I personally would never work for a company now or in the future that has six sigma, because the best and most profitable way of improving the “bottom line” is by taking the steps and time to correct what the problem is to the customers satisfaction (within reason of course).

    You cannot define every type of error that will occur (Murphy’s law), so why turn your wheels trying to define it. Go back to what this society needs—CUSTOMER SERVICE!!!

  10. Albert Viljoen

    YES, absolutely if you let it and NO if you make that your strategy!

    McKinsey and Company developed a Innovation Black Belt methodology for a multinational chemical company apart from the Improvement Black Belts. Their reported Six Sigma savings for combined approaches was CHF132m ($136m) for FYE 2015.

    These innovation belts are tasked to focus and lead assigned teams to develop new innovative solutions as part of their KPI’s.

Leave a Reply