Innovation and Six Sigma

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.

Handpicked Content:   Lean Six Sigma: What's in it for me?

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.

Handpicked Content:   Customers

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.

Comments 6

  1. cheryl howard

    It’s refreshing to read this in a Six Sigma publication! Using the acronyms and verbage with untrained folks not only hinders communications but reinforces the perception that the "belted" workforce is elitist. I am a professional communicator for my organization. When I publish stories about process excellence for our employees to read, and I need to use a term such as Voice of the Customer, I will add a hyperlink to a glossary of terms. Whether they have no idea what they’re reading OR they need a refresher, the link to a glossary of terms (or diagrams) also helps.

  2. john sefcik

    I find it interesting that you make a strong assertion on a topic that "you can’t wrap your mind around." In a true Six Sigma fashion it would seem to follow that data should drive the conclusion. Six Sigma and Innovation are not interrelated and certainly not "necessary" for success. There are plenty of successful companies (as defined by Wall Street) that have no Six Sigma program nor are they necessarily innovative.

    I am not defending the view that Six Sigma kills nor embraces innovation. I am of the opinion that many who take up this argument on either side have different definitions of innovation. There are aspects of both Six Sigma and innovation that are compatible and others aspects that have direct issues. In the case of issues, I believe the two can still coexist, but must be buffered (or isolated) from each other.

    Since there appears to be a gap in the discussion, I would hope that Six Sigma would take the opportunity to do a gap analysis and work to bridge the gap rather than to take a position based on belief or emotion.

  3. Andrew Downard

    Hi John,

    Touché. I did indeed write about something I don’t really understand. I concede the point.

    (On the other hand, if I stuck to writing only about what I understand, well, there would be no blog. That list of topics is really, really short.)

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that Six Sigma is not necessary for success. However, I do think ongoing continuous improvement is necessary for sustained success, and Six Sigma is one program that can help achieve ongoing continuous improvement. It is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it can help. On a re-read of my post above, you are correct that this point is mis-stated. I referred to Six Sigma specifically where I should have referred to continuous improvement generically.

    Even so, to your point, I don’t have data to back me up on this one. It is a hunch. I’d be genuinely interested in counter examples – organizations that have been successful over time without some form of ongoing, continuous improvement strategy. I don’t know of any, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    However, I can’t agree that Six Sigma and Innovation are not related. Fortunately it doesn’t matter. Even if you are right and they are completely independent, it only reinforces the notion that they cannot be not mutually exclusive.

    We agree that Innovation and Six Sigma can coexist, and that it may be sensible to buffer them to some extent. Where we disagree is on whether the two can be fully isolated from one another. I don’t think it is possible, and I don’t think it’s desirable either.


  4. Andrew Downard

    Hi Cheryl,

    Thanks for your comment. I will defend Six Sigma on many fronts, but not on use of arcane and incomprehensible terminology. It is a jargon-heavy field, and most of the jargon adds no value. In almost every case, the English language already has better words than the invented Six Sigma terms.

    For example:

    "I ran a t-test to figure out whether the difference in population means was statistically significant at 95% confidence"

    is almost always more usefully expressed as:

    "I checked to see if this group was really different than that one".

    Every time I go back to the classic authors in the field (Deming, Ishikawa, Wheeler, etc), I am impressed anew at how clearly they communicate in plain English. They set an example that many of us would do well to emulate more closely.

    So…your point is well taken!


  5. Robert Butler

    I find it interesting that there are people who seem to think method and reason are somehow the anathema of innovation and creativity. My perception is the only way one could have this view is if one had absolutely no knowledge of the process of innovation since any accurate history of any scientific effort clearly shows the value of method and reason in the ultimate success of the investigation.

    In 1910 A.G. Webster said:

    "In matters of scientific investigation the method that should be employed is think, plan, calculate, experiment and first, last, and foremost, think. The method most often employed is wonder, guess, putter, theorize, guess again, and above all avoid calculation."
    It was true before 1910, it was true then, and it is true today. Consider Edison – his Menlo Park lab was the model for the industrial laboratory. His methods of inquiry were the heart and soul of organization and reason – Find out what the customer wants, generate ideas that may satisfy those wants, put a proposal together, get financial backing, and then and only then, go out and invent the thing.

    The labs of John Bardeen are another excellent example – he had his graduate students organized like a small army – every student knew what part of the project was theirs and there were daily meetings to discuss progress – Bardeen is the only person to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice – once for the transistor and once for the BCS theory of superconductivity.

    If you need more examples of the pairing of method and reason with creative success pick up any issue of the magazine Invention and Technology. Every issue has stories that can be summarized by the first part of the Webster quote above.

  6. Andrew Downard

    Hi Robert,

    Well stated, and thanks for the quotations.

    As I admitted above, I find it very difficult to understand the opposite position on this issue. But it is well represented in the popular Six Sigma media these days. Anyone who doubts that need only Google the phrase "3M Six Sigma".

    just don’t know where to start on this conversation. To wit, consider John’s comment above that "Six Sigma and Innovation are not interrelated". To me, that’s like someone who wants to argue that the sky is orange. I’m just not sure where to start. Examples like yours are probably a good place.

    Thanks again,


Leave a Reply