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The Six Sigma-Innovation Debate

Posted by: Jena McGregor on June 12, 2007

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at management guru Tom Peters’ blog (can anyone believe his book “In Search of Excellence” is 25 years old?) about my colleague Brian Hindo’s story about 3M. The story is a thoughtful, well-written examination of how the popular Six Sigma quality and efficiency dogma damaged 3M’s vaunted innovation culture. The questions raised in the comments by readers of the site are interesting: Should the success of Jim McNerney, who introduced Six Sigma to 3M, be measured by 3M’s stock price, which was up when he left, or by his long-term legacy? Does a balance of process and creativity—trying to do both Six Sigma and innovation—lead to routine and mediocrity? Is Sarbanes-Oxley this decade’s “ISO 9000” innovation killer?

Peters says we took the easy way out: “‘Balance’ is as always the answer—and the real theme of the BW cover story. But an injunction to ‘do both’ doesn’t cut it for me—it’s a first class cop-out as I see it.” I don’t think that Brian ever called for “balance” in the story; rather, he acknowledged that the tension between efficiency and creativity is one that every CEO in the world is struggling with. I agree with Peters that balance isn’t the answer. But like every tension managers cope with—the balance between professional life and home life, between short-term and long-term goals—there must be some attention paid to both, with each one winning out for a time as needs change. It takes good managers—not just management fads—to know which one to champion in different business cycles and how to keep a business idea from running amok.

Reader Comments

John Hunter

June 20, 2007 1:40 PM

I would say that if six sigma is seen as stifling innovation then the organizations application of six sigma is poor. Many places just see six sigma as cost reduction - that was never a good way to practice it and yes that is a bad idea (and likely harms innovation too).

For more see:

One good first step is to read what Roger Hoerl has written (articles and books). Following that advice will not reduce innovation, it will improve the practice of innovation using six sigma ideas.

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