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?

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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.

Comments 2

  1. john s

    It’s a facinating subject that many have tried to address lately. The articles are in two camps, either 6Sigma and innovation go hand in hand or they are polar opposites. I am convinced that both are correct, but only because each camp is talking about a different aspect of innovation.

    There is a conceptual phase of innovation that is purely creative. This is the birth of the idea. In this phase 6Sigma cannot add much because just as no amount process or training will make me an artist or a musician. Neither can process or training help create innovation.

    Once the idea has been formed and is proven though, 6Sigma can fully be used during the execution phase – to take the innovative idea from concept to reality. In this phase, 6Sigma can be fully utilized to aid in the design, plan the development, work through any issues and produce a finished product.

    The phase between these two is where the debate really takes shape. In this phase, the idea has been born and the next step is a working model proof of concept. What is the best approach? Creativity is still a huge part of the answer. Can 6Sigma help? Absolutely! How does an organization blend the two in this phase? That’s the million dollar question.

    Some authors have talked about an "ambidextrous" organization. That may work with separate groups performing the concept and execution phases. One heavily creative, the other utilizing 6Sigma principles to execute. But I’ve not seen where the creative and 6Sigma coexist in one group in the proof of concept or any other phase.

    6Sigma has tremendous strength and value added during design, development and production. Tools exist that can also help bridge "white space" between technology and people. 6Sigma may work in some cases with innovation. As experts, we strive to apply the appropriate tools and processes for the situation. We need to understand where and when to apply 6Sigma to streamline and improve.

  2. Robin Barnwell

    Hi John

    I agree with all these points.

    It’s an interesting point you bring out regarding how to nurture and develop an initial idea into a workable solution. LSS can sometimes work for and against ideas based purely on stage.

    If you are in Define people say things like "hold on we are not in solution-mode right now, we need to understand the problem".

    But when in Improve people say things like, "lets run a CDAM and Pugh Matrix to develop the optimal innovation".

    All for good reason, do not solve the wrong thing, but can look awkward to a newcomer.


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