Quality Systems and Innovation

Originally published on Mark Graban's Lean Blog in 2007.

The June 11, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek features a great story about 3M's recent problems with Six Sigma, "At 3M, A Struggle Between Efficiency And Creativity."

As a Lean Six Sigma black belt at my company, I find that reading these types of articles continuously reminds me that neither Lean nor Six Sigma is a panacea.

The article talks about how 3M is scaling back on Six Sigma. Notably, they are taking it out of the research labs at 3M. The article states that many companies have moved away from the quality focus of Six Sigma and now just see it as cost cutting. I think this is true. 3M's new CEO chose to scale back so that the scientists could get back to thinking about big ideas.

I think that we can learn from this, but we have to be careful how we take it. Six Sigma or Lean is a framework. If you value quality, you will use the framework to improve quality. If you value cost cutting, you will use the framework to cut costs. The problem with most companies is that when they role out the framework, they role out what the company values at the same time. The message is not "Lean Six Sigma is a framework of problem solving rules and principles." Instead, the message is "Lean Six Sigma lets us cut costs by 50% with Kaizens and Value Streams." The second statement solves your problem before you even know what it is. In psychology, this is called presupposition and it is a very powerful way to influence people to come to a predetermined conclusion. In this case, the conclusion is that Lean or Six Sigma is all about cost cutting. I'm going to call this S.S.A.M.E. (Six Sigma as Misguidedly Executed), but common.

3M wanted to innovate again. Seeing that Six Sigma was synonymous with cost cutting, they either had to create a company-wide culture change to decouple Six Sigma from cost cutting or try something different. 3M recognized that their R&D staff already knew how to innovate, so they rolled back the clock and let them have their space again.

I've got mixed feelings about this. Although I think the framework can be used for evolutionary and revolutionary innovation, I think 3M did a good thing by scaling back. There is nothing worse than applying the wrong metrics and value system (cost cutting) to a function that is supposed to be focusing on something completely different (creating the next incredible invention that will change the face of the earth.)