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Six Sigma to failure

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on September 26, 2005

You can’t Six Sigma your way to innovation. I said that to a business school audience a while back and made a lot of students and professors very angry. It undermined their belief system, devalued their curriculum and scared the heck out of the graduating class. But the truth is that Six Sigma is all about process and cost, while innovation is all about the new. Companies led by CEOs trained in Six Sigma (GE has “graduated” thousands of Six-Sigma trained managers) are finding it hard to shift paradigms.
So here’s a tip.Seth Godin has another book coming out called The Big Moo. Godin is a fast-talking, really smart, brand/marketing guru who hit it big with his previous book The Purple Cow. This time he’s asked 32 really smart thinkers to join him in writing a chapter each on innovation (The Group of 33). It’s an impressive crowd with a lot of wisdom. Among them are some of my favorite thinkers—Alan Webber, Malcolm Gladwell, Julie Anixter, Guy Kawasaki, Jacqueline Novogratz, Tom Kelley, Mark Cuban, Daniel Pink and on. All proceeds go to three charities. Godin is also selling the galleys to people who promise to buy a lot of hardcovers. That’s pretty creative.

Reader Comments


September 26, 2005 11:37 PM

"innovation on process."

i do actually feel that innovation and process are not contradictory. i know that when communicating with us-educated counterparts process always equals linear. but that does not have to be the case.

process very well can be open - or sequentially linear and sequentially open.
and - as we all know: innovation has to be embedded - either in a portfolio strategy... or - to my concern: in process!

shift your paradigm;)

with kind regards


September 27, 2005 7:06 AM

Back to the basic just thinking six sigma is about process and cost. But isn't Innovation is also Process and Cost ??
I believe that thinking new and thinking different is important to innovation,but sometimes when dreams to high and cost overrun, probably innovation should be thinked differently also.
As innovation process is freedom, the market decides.


August 24, 2006 6:23 PM

Excellent. I agree can't agree more. In my view people and organisation tend to over do the 6S, and while they are going from 10000 defects to that magical figure of 3.4 defect PMO they tend to forget that world has moved many times and this can be decisive in business, where strategy chnges and hence complexity grows every day..


September 22, 2006 2:58 AM

I agree that Six Sigma has nothing to do with innovation. It can't help process a great deal either if you read the articles here:

eric urbain

January 9, 2007 11:15 PM

I disagree. A recent article from your publication boasted the successful mariage of six sigma and innovation in a complementary relationship. Six Sigma ensures that all the requirements of product/service are in place while innovation drives the creators to listen to the marketplace and push the envelope.


January 11, 2007 6:40 AM

Six Sigma is just not as effective as, say, Sony was in the 1980s with Akio Morita at the helm.

Sony worked like it did back then because its leadership had the same purpose and shared the same fate as its workers. The leaders were there for their people, their customers, their products, and their company. They allowed reasonable risks to be taken and they didn't fire people for making honest mistakes or not succeeding, especially if they learned from their experiences and made an effort to do better. They allowed decision-making not only with management, but also with workers. They even allowed consensus between management and workers. They understood that there was no profit to be made, especially in the long term, if they couldn't first serve their customers right and treat their workers as human beings.

If you can't serve your customers properly, then what reason do they have to conduct business with you again? They will go to your competitors if you treat them badly, and rightfully so.

If you can't treat your workers right, then what incentive do they have to work well? Why should they work hard for you if you can't show any appreciation for their efforts?

It's all as simple as that. Even with the biggest businesses, the basic mission is always providing worthwhile service through your people and products. The moment that mission is forgotten and profit, not service, becomes the rule, then the business will sink. Making profit the priority breeds bad habits that will undermine any company as profit is always the result of good customer service and fair treatment of employees. Ergo, people should always be the priority, which results in profit in the long term.

Many successful businesses don't start with a person who wanted to make money; a successful business started because the founder had a vision, a passion, and a desire to serve the customer with the resulting product. And, that business stays in operation as long as they do not forget their reason for existence, which is what makes them profitable in the first place.

Many companies today, including post-Morita Sony, have leadership that's there just for the money and stock options. They do whatever they can for the bottom line and the shareholders, even if it's at great detriment to the company, either short term or long term.

You can have all the management seminars and what not, but that's really all malarkey; one of the most important things to know in a business is how to treat people well. Another is to understand WHY you are in the business (for instance, if you are an automaker, your purpose is to build cars worthy of purchase over your competition as opposed to being an automaker just to make money). If you can't treat people well and understand the true purpose of your business, then you can't operate as a good business. - Reinhart


November 5, 2008 4:45 PM

Six Sigma isn't innovative even in the Quality arena. For example, in the mining industry the supplier can't provide a constant assay - the ore - so where is the innovative use of process adjustment in Six Sigma?

The standard quality approach of 'anything out of specification' is a defect isn't often observed in real world, and many companies suffer defects even when all process achieve a Cpk = 2 (1.33 if you're not Japanese)

The Toyota Production System on the other hand is truly innovative. It is so innovative that most American Quality Assurance experts don't understand it!

Bülent Yurdakul

February 4, 2009 7:58 PM

I suggest to read or download our article here:

in order to undesratnd how Design For Six Sigma and Innovation are integrated. We can provide our New Generation Design For Six Sigma ® Methods to train practitioners and to execute projects. Plainty of success stories and proves for Innovations from telecommunication and automotive industry are available on request. Bülent Yurdakul

Andy Urquhart

March 13, 2009 9:37 AM

The last poster really sums up this mindset - they claim all this success and saving so much money - but they have to resort to using this discussion for some cheap advertising.

What readers need to be aware of is what we've seen recently in the Financial Sector represents Quality's most Spectacular failure. It is not a failure of government or bankers that has led use to this point - it is a failure of a system that believes output can tell you something about Quality. It can't ... Quality according to Pirsig is a Duty of Care. Outputs only relate to performance and performance variation can never tell us anything about Quality.


June 1, 2009 3:15 PM

finally General motor collapse due to 6 sigma too.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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