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What Does Innovation have to do with Six Sigma?

Posted by: Emily Thornton on January 12, 2009

Many managers make the mistake of believing that innovation is something they can only afford during the good times. They limit their definition of innovation to boosting investment in potentially blockbuster products. To many, that’s a luxury they can not afford when times get tough.

But when I spoke recently to David Silverstein, CEO of Longmont (Colo.) consultancy Breakthrough Management Group, for our recent story on The New Rules, he argued that innovation is more akin to management practices like Six Sigma than many might think.

Why? Because both Six Sigma and innovating are about problem solving. So he encourages executives to innovate in both good times and bad. By using tools of innovation, Silverstein argues, managers will increase efficiencies and find ways to cut costs potentially even more deeply.

Here are some of his thoughts on the differences and similarities for anyone who is interested:

Q: What do you consider innovation?

A: We confuse innovation with creativity versus other ways to problem solve. Ultimately, innovation isn’t just figuring out something better. It about how to do something better by doing something different.

Q: What would be an example of how innovation achieves results similar to Six Sigma but in a different way?

A: I’ll give you a simple one. Take a company that makes paper. The paper has got to be dried out. And the last couple of years the paper industry has been getting killed with high energy costs. The Six Sigma approach to solving this problem is to figure out the optimal temperature of the heaters; the optimum speed for the fan; and how far the fan should be from the paper. But another way to attack the problem is to say, hey, let me use tools of innovation. And look at how they dry things out in other industries. So let’s talk about how the orange juice industry dries out oranges. They use a chemical. And low and behold, once you look, you discover that you can use that chemical to dry paper for one tenth the cost.

Q: Are there any potential advantages to using tools of innovation instead of Six Sigma?

A: Innovation is about finding a solution out of the box. So tools of innovation can help you cut costs even faster and indoctrinate your company into innovative thinking so that when the economy does turnaround you’ll be in a much better position to grow. People will be much more accustomed to looking outside of your industry and your company and thinking differently. It’s taking a much broader perspective of what innovation really means.

Reader Comments

Forrest Breyfogle

January 12, 2009 5:21 PM

For additional points see “Better Fostering Innovation: 9 Steps that Improve Lean Six Sigma” at

In addition, a recent American Management Association (AMA) article describes how to go Beyond Lean Six Sigma and the Balanced Scorecards through an Integrated Enterprise Excellence (IEE) system. IEE is a 21st Century Business Management Governance System that integrates policy innovation with scorecards, strategic planning, business improvement, and control. This article can be downloaded from item #1 in the link below.

Wally Bock

January 14, 2009 5:29 PM

The idea that hard times rule out innovation is nuts. This is when we need innovation to most to find solutions to problems without using the resources we used to have.

Frank Shines

January 23, 2009 2:40 PM

During the "Improve" phase of a Six Sigma project there is nothing that prevents a team from drawing upon innovative approaches vs. Six Sigma process optimization approaches to solving the problem. The article cited above on Fostering Innovation is an excellent read and provides great insights into innovation with an enterprise approach to Lean Six Sigma. Finally, I agreee that during today's tough economic times innovation is imperative.


January 23, 2009 3:23 PM

I believe Six Sigma / Lean Six Sigma are unnecessary throwbacks to a business culture of the last century, a culture that set the stage for today's crisis.

In my experience Six Sigma stifles innovation.

Cusco, Peru

Ron Strauss

January 28, 2009 10:44 AM

Six Sigma is about improving current practices and processes. Six Sigma is a 'red ocean' strategy, designed to improve things at the margins compared to competitors' offerings. Innovation is a 'blue ocean' stratgey designed to ask and answer: "Is this the right thing to do, or is there a new and better way?" Innovation is about new industries and new markets. Both Six Sigma and innovation are needed to answer "Are we doing the right things, and if so, are we doing the right things efficiently?"

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