Paraphrasing the famous poet Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This captures the essence of unintended consequences. While the intent of your Six Sigma project is usually to make a positive improvement in a process, sometimes things don’t go as planned. 

Let’s see how this may apply to your organization.

Overview: What are unintended consequences? 

Sociologist Robert Merton first introduced the concept of unanticipated consequences in 1936. According to Merton, unanticipated consequences are actions having both intended and unintended consequences. You are usually aware of the intended consequences and what you expect will happen, but the unintended are more difficult to recognize or anticipate. 

Merton defined three types of unintended consequences. They were:

  • Unintended positive consequence where the outcome wasn’t expected but turned out to be beneficial.
  • Unintended negative consequence where the outcome wasn’t expected but turned out to have a negative impact.
  • Perverse consequence where the outcome is the opposite of what you intended, typically negative.

For example, you want to be sure you always have products available to fill customer orders, so you decide to carry a high level of inventory. The unintended consequence was an increase in product shrinkage, obsolescence, and product damage. This was not anticipated and will have a negative impact on your company’s financials.

On the other hand, you applied the 8 wastes of Lean to reduce waste or muda in your process and were surprised when accidents went down and employee morale increased. These were positive unintended consequences.

One of the ways you can do a better job predicting unintended consequences is to select a secondary metric to complement your primary metrics or KPIs

For example, your project is intended to reduce backroom inventory in your stores. Inventory levels would be your primary metric and your intended consequence. Your secondary metric might be out-of-stocks due to the reduced inventory and an unanticipated increase in customer demand. If inventory goes down and out-of-stocks go up, you now have a negative unintended consequence.

An industry example of unintended consequences 

As a result of increasing credit losses from his smaller customers, the finance director instituted a more restrictive policy for extending credit to customers. He was happy when he saw the dollar amount of credit losses significantly decline. 

Unfortunately, the sales director contacted the finance director and complained that the tougher credit policy was having a negative impact and sales were declining. That was a negative unintended consequence. 

Eventually, both directors got together and created a balanced credit policy that reduced credit losses without having a negative impact on sales. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about unintended consequences

1. What is a good example of unintended consequences? 

Many countries implemented mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. The intended consequence was to reduce infections and keep people safe. The unintended consequences were the increase in civil discourse, new government regulations, and bipartisan conflict. 

2. Is there a way to predict unintended consequences? 

Yes. You usually have a primary metric you measure to see if your intended consequence or outcome is achieved. By identifying the possible negative outcomes and tracking a secondary metric, you will be able to see if implementing your actions results in any negative outcomes. If so, you can intervene and mitigate the unintended consequences of your actions. 

3. Can an unintended consequence be positive? 

Yes. One of the most famous such positive unintended consequences was the accidental discovery of penicillin, which changed the face of medicine. This unintended consequence of Sir Alexander Fleming’s research with the influenza virus was the discovery of the first antibiotic. 

Fleming is credited with saying, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

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