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Six Sigma and Innovation

Business Week Article: "At 3M, a Struggle Between Efficiency and Creativity"

March 09, 2009


This recent article by Business Week raises some interesting issues surrounding the Six Sigma deployment at 3M, particularly the application of DFSS within R&D. It sounds like a fair conclusion that Six Sigma was not well-applied in this arena. You can find the article here.

I agree that true invention is an inherently unpredictable process, but I don't buy the supposition that process discipline and creativity can't co‐exist. This is like claiming that a magazine article with good grammar and no typos can't be creatively written.

Indeed, businesses with less process variability can spend less time fighting fires and more time focused on innovative activities. The 3M problem apparently lies with the specific application of Six Sigma at 3M, not the methodology itself.

It's like claiming that because Shaquille O'Neal can't shoot free throws, free throws are a low percentage method of scoring points. Or, a more appropriate analogy might be that although the 3‐point shot can be an effective way to score points, you have to use it in the right situation, and it's probably not effective to have EVERYONE on the team shooting 3 point shots.

Returning, to the 3M case study, an overly bureaucratic deployment of Design for Six Sigma within R&D could easily bog down the creative process, but it doesn't follow that the basic DFSS methodology of understanding customer requirements and then designing products capable of meeting those requirements is inherently disruptive — it's all in the application, just like too much fertilizer can burn up a plant.

One principle embraced by Six Sigma is that it's dangerous to draw conclusions from a sample size of one — the Business Week analysis would be more useful if it had been based on a larger and better constructed sample, including companies who have had more success using DFSS for design and innovation.

Another Business Week article suggests that the influence of Six Sigma is waning because Home Depot applied Six Sigma, and Home Depot's stock price has languished. Here is the article.

To be sure, Six Sigma has been oversold by some consultants and authors, but I think most serious practitioners would recognize that reducing process variability is not powerful enough to offset a poor corporate strategy. The article misses this point, employing a logic that would lead to the following nonsensical conclusion: Home Depot reduced stock‐outs —> Home Depot's stock price has languished —> therefore, reducing stock‐outs caused Home Depot‐s stock price to stagnate.

There were/are bigger problems at Home Depot beyond the arena of process excellence — a saturated market, strategic decisions to enter the wholesale market, and nimble competitors to name three. Correlation is not a sufficient condition to conclude causation. However, wider recognition of the limitations of Lean Six Sigma is probably useful.

As Business Week notes: "...as its popularity endures, the notion of Six Sigma as a corporate cure‐all is subsiding." That may be a healthy development. In a basketball game, it doesn't do any good to steal the ball and then dribble it off your foot — you have to put it all together — strategy AND innovation AND execution, not just execution.