Six sigma and innovation.

Related terms:
In 2005 I had the fun time of listening to Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO) and Tom Kelley (Art of Innovation and IDEO). Before the start of the talk I took the chance to ask Tim this question: How do innovation and 6 sigma coexist?

His rule of thumb:
When he is approached by a company that has just started a 6 sigma process, he tells them to come back in about 18 months. He said 6 sigma, mainly, is about efficiencies, and that it takes about 18 months for the 6 sigma programs on those efficiencies to get through the system. Then the company is ready for that next level of tapping the innovation mind set. This is, assuming, that the 6 sigma processes are well absorbed and that it was not a flavor of the month/"one shot" program.

Tim's rule of thumb is interesting today because of the cover story about 3M in Business Week: "At 3M, A Struggle Between Efficiency And Creativity".

In short, 3M took on in a big way six sigma when James McNerney, a former GE executive, became the CEO of 3M. Early on the outside world rewarded this with higher stock price and certainly internally with large cost savings. However, the six sigma activity, according to the article, also changed the 3M culture (one of mythology!) to the point that the innovation took second place to efficiency and process.

"In some cases in the lab it [six sigma] made sense, but in other cases, people were going around dreaming up green-belt programs to fill their quota of green-belt programs for that time period. We were letting, I think, the process get in the way of doing the actual invention." said Dr. Larry Wendling, a 3M vice-president who directs the "R" in 3M's R&D operation.

So can innovation and process improvements co-exist? I think so, if the groups practicing six sigma and innovation are well defined and understand that application of six sigma or innovation tools must not be applied globally and equally.