Does Six Sigma Inhibit Innovation?

One of the more enduring debates in quality and performance improvement circles is whether or not Six Sigma inhibits innovation. Developing a perspective on this issue is not straight-forward since it depends on how one defines “Six Sigma.”

For the purposes of this note, I define “Six Sigma” as a name for a wide suite of tools and concepts encompassing not only statistical process characterization and measurement, but also lean process principles, concepts from the theory of constraints, organizational change management etcetera. In other words, I define “Six Sigma” in a way that includes all problem solving, change management, and project management tools useful in the design or improvement of processes, for diagnosis of business issues, and the support of organizational change management.

Furthermore, and most critically for the issue of Six Sigma and innovation, is that I also define Six Sigma as encompassing the mindsets and behaviors of disciplined thought and action and a fact-based, scientific approach to problem solving (such as a hypothesis-driven analysis). In general, it is the rigorous and disciplined nature of Six Sigma that, in my experience, most concerns executives who fear that the rigor of Six Sigma might inhibit what they feel is the “right-brain”, creative, and less structured nature of creativity and innovation.

Over the years I have developed the perspective that Six Sigma, in the broad sense defined above, is not an inhibitor to innovation or creativity and indeed is a beneficial and integral component of successful innovation — that is to say, innovations that actually make it to a practicable stage and, in a commercial setting, to profitable realization.

One of the specific concerns expressed by employees and even Black Belts, regarding Six Sigma and innovation, is whether the philosophy of near-perfection might in and of itself retard creative innovation which is often messy non-linear and, quite frankly, often littered with dead-ends, imperfect and often unpredictable and serendipitous accidents.

In training and coaching Black Belts over the years, I have consistently emphasized, for many situations, the virtues of the pilot/test approach to process and product design. In this method, one does not always wait until a “perfect” or 6 sigma level of performance is achieved on the drafting table before testing out the design (clearly, there are ultra-high risk situations that do not lend themselves to a try-adjust-try again approach except on a simulator).

A real-life example of this principle in action is that of William “Red” Whittaker, the 63-year-old professor of robotics at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University who is gambling on his boldest venture yet: designing and making a spacecraft capable of carrying one of his robots to the moon.

Mr. Whittaker and a band of students are among 29 teams vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $20 million to the first privately funded team whose robot reaches the moon, travels 500 meters and flashes data back to the Earth. Though no one on his team has ever made a spacecraft, Mr. Whittaker is undaunted by his goal of reaching the moon in April 2014. In a profile in The Wall Street Journal (July 2, 2011), he says he is “bored by incremental research and likes projects that border on the unachievable.”

“A lot of times you don’t really have to be good, just first,” Mr. Whittaker said. He believes in getting the idea “90% right” and plunging into production by trial and error, rather than seeking the perfect design.

In this case, Whittaker employs a mindset of trial and error that I coach Black Belts to embrace since many are often too transfixed with avoiding mistakes to see the virtues and merits of the trial and error approach during the Improve/Design phase of DMAIC/DMADV.