Quality Systems & Innovation

By Mike R. Lopez:

The June 11, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek features a great story about 3M’s recent problems with Six Sigma, “At 3M, A Struggle Between Efficiency And Creativity.”

As a Lean Six Sigma black belt at my company, I find that reading these types of articles continuously reminds me that neither Lean nor Six Sigma is a panacea.

The article talks about how 3M is scaling back on Six Sigma. Notably, they are taking it out of the research labs at 3M. The article states that many companies have moved away from the quality focus of Six Sigma and now just see it as cost cutting. I think this is true. 3M’s new CEO chose to scale back so that the scientists could get back to thinking about big ideas.

I think that we can learn from this, but we have to be careful how we take it. Six Sigma or Lean is a framework. If you value quality, you will use the framework to improve quality. If you value cost cutting, you will use the framework to cut costs. The problem with most companies is that when they role out the framework, they role out what the company values at the same time. The message is not “Lean Six Sigma is a framework of problem solving rules and principles.” Instead, the message is “Lean Six Sigma lets us cut costs by 50% with Kaizens and Value Streams.” The second statement solves your problem before you even know what it is. In psychology, this is called presupposition and it is a very powerful way to influence people to come to a predetermined conclusion. In this case, the conclusion is that Lean or Six Sigma is all about cost cutting. I’m going to call this S.S.A.M.E. (Six Sigma as Misguidedly Executed), but common.

3M wanted to innovate again. Seeing that Six Sigma was synonymous with cost cutting, they either had to create a company-wide culture change to decouple Six Sigma from cost cutting or try something different. 3M recognized that their R&D staff already knew how to innovate, so they rolled back the clock and let them have their space again.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Although I think the framework can be used for evolutionary and revolutionary innovation, I think 3M did a good thing by scaling back. There is nothing worse than applying the wrong metrics and value system (cost cutting) to a function that is supposed to be focusing on something completely different (creating the next incredible invention that will change the face of the earth.)

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5 Comments on "Quality Systems & Innovation"

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  1. Ron says:

    Nice post Mike. I disagree, however, with the idea that Six Sigma is now being used as a cost cutting tool instead of a focus on quality. Are these not the same things using different words? If, for example, cost is my big Y then I need to attack the red X’s that are impacting this Y in a negative manner, right? I do think Six Sigma is being bastardized by many consultants attempting to earn a living. But that is another story all together. Also, DFSS is chalk full of innovative tools. The problem is the methodology is a little harder to grasp and most companies are not willing to dig in and really learn it. DMAIC is not meant to innovate. Never was. However, DMADV and other DFSS methods can really help a company. Now will DMADV help some weird dude who dreams about innovation come up with ideas? Probably not. But once this weird guy gets an idea he can plug some data into a monte carlo simulator and figure out the best way to really make the idea work before spending a dime. Maybe that is not innovative enough for some… but makes perfect sense to me. What do you think?

  2. Anonymous says:

    It seems positively stupid to think you can’t have both Six Sigma AND innovation at the same time at a company.

    This is more of the “we can only focus on one management tool at a time” mentality that’s harmful and destructive. We have to throw out Six Sigma from the places it’s useful because our innovation has suffered?

    The % of revenue from new products goal (33%) that 3M isn’t hitting now (25%) — isn’t that an arbitrary goal that’s bound to be harmful? Think of the ways people could game that number (purposefully killing old products). Thankfully, total revenue is a balancing factor.

    Was the 3M Six Sigma time good for anyone other than McInerny? He moved on to Boeing and has made millions. Thousands of 3M people lost their jobs. Is 3M quality any better now? Profitability?

    Why is it so damn hard to say “we need six sigma controlled processes when things are stable” (such as production) but we need innovation in the design phase??

  3. Anonymous says:

    This kills me:

    “The term is now so widely and divergently applied that it’s hard to pin down what it actually means.”

  4. Mike T says:

    I have several friends in 3M plants (both manufacturing and engineering fields). They all generally have a bad attitude toward Lean and 6-Sigma. From discussions we’ve had, it would appear that the “tools” were rolled out, but not the “cultures” and that the opinion is these are flavors of the month only.

    Too bad, as this only continues to drive ill feelings about both of these valuable systems.

  5. Andrea says:

    “There is nothing worse than applying the wrong metrics and value system (cost cutting) to a function”

    You got it right there. Once again, this seems to be mostly an example of getting what you measure.

    If the metric is successful projects completed, then people will game the system to have the most successful projects. If the desired metric is innovative products developed, why not decide on the standards for that metric?

    There’s a commmenter (unearthy) on the article itself who talks about creativity as process. That to me would be a more interesting study. Work with the “front line staff” those who can successfully do the innovation and see what thier process is. Offer it as best practices to the others. Experiment with your own process, improve it. Six Sigma police are not going to jump out and stop you.

    But, first you’ll have to release the “stranglehold” of Six Sigma. And probably call it something else when you come back to add some structure. I find it amusing to find the perpetuation of the “creativity requires chaos” stereotype. Most creative types actually need structure in everything else in thier life… When life is all about hunting clean socks and something to eat you never have anything left to create with.

    But really, what I disliked most was the attitude in the article that no individual innovation could happen within Six Sigma. Why not? Seriously, what is there in the tools that prevents you from innovating? I can see all sorts of things in the glimpses of policy they gave us that prevented innovation. But since when is the policy on how to use a hammer the same thing as the hammer?

    Ah, well, we’re pretty much preaching to the choir here, right?

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