Process improvement is bad for innovation

I’ve had this feeling for a while and now there is evidence that process improvement, like Six Sigma, stifles innovation. Oligopoly Watch feels that, “The management moves that cheer stockholders and financial analysts, when taken too far, can lead to the long-term decline of the company in question.” Their article today reports that Six Sigma process improvement has resulted in less innovation at 3M, a company renowned for its innovative products, like the Post-It Note:

But, according to the article, 3M is hurting this year. Its operations are far more efficient, but this is company that has thrived on having a variety of new and sometimes breakthrough products coming to market. No longer. Financial results are down, and the general sense is that 3M is doing everything more efficiency except innovation. Six Sigma is great for speeding up the assembly lines or minimizing errors, but fails at producing new ideas.

About ten years ago I became immersed in Human Performance Technology (HPT), another process improvement method, but not as lucrative as Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing. The tools and perspectives were beneficial but that is all that they are – tools. Process improvement is a tool set, not an overarching or unifying concept for an organisation.  Process improvement is a means and not an end in itself, and this seems to be the trap that 3M fell into.

I left the HPT fold about a year ago when I realized that being a Certified Performance Technologist was not an achievable end, but a costly merry-go-round that just kept spinning.  I have learned a lot from HPT, but you cannot look at things one way, to the exclusion of all others. The fundamental problem with all of these process improvement methodologies is that you get myopic. It seems that 3M is learning this lesson as well.

7 Responses to “Process improvement is bad for innovation”

  1. Alec Bruce

    Bravo, Harold! Quite right! The problem with synthesized performance programs is that they almost always produce the opposite of what they purport: innovation, productivity, ingenuity, profits.

    Like it or not, these qualities are most often iconoclastic, individualistic, and fundamentally resistant to fourmulae. That’s not to say that they can’t be harnessed by small, or even large, organizations. But to do so requires the sort of attention a hard-core gardener has for his Asiatic lilys and orchids. . .in other words, individual attention that at least matches the unique talent that’s been hired.

    Not an easy row to hoe, to be sure; but it is the only one that generates beautiful blooms and a rising crop of hardy bulbs year after year.

    Okay, so I pushed the gardening metaphor too far. . .So sue me:)

  2. Martin M-B

    It’s a small point, but in the Oligopoly Watch article to which Harold refers, the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ are used almost synonomously:
    “…unless like the old Ma Bell, like Xerox PARC, of 3M, innovators have some protection from the Six Sigma menace. 3M is retreating from Six Sigma in the labs, and other companies are starting to realize that quality management can become an obsession, one that drives away creative people and forces others to play it safe.”

    Wikipedia defines Creativity as:
    “…a mental process involving the generation of new ideas or concepts, or new associations between existing ideas or concepts.

    From a scientific point of view, the products of creative thought (sometimes referred to as divergent thought) are usually considered to have both originality and appropriateness. An alternative, more everyday conception of creativity is that it is simply the act of making something new.”
    whilst declaring that “The classic definitions of innovation include:

    the process of making improvements by introducing something new
    the act of introducing something new: something newly introduced
    the introduction of something new.
    a new idea, method or device.
    the successful exploitation of new ideas
    change that creates a new dimension of performance
    A creative idea that is realized
    “The capability of continuously realizing a desired future state”
    “The staging of value and/or the conservation of value.””

    Meanwhile, offer, in a covering comment to the great TED talk on Creativity and Education by Sir Ken Robinson ( that “Creativity is the process of having original ideas, but there are several steps. The first step is imagination, the capacity that we all have to see something in the mind’s eye. Creativity is then using that imagination to solve problems — call it applied imagination. Then innovation is putting that creativity into practice as applied creativity.”

    Is this the generally accepted way of describing the relationship between Innovation and Creativity? And how useful/necessary is it?
    In a recent presentation ( Dave Snowden put forward the notion that “creativity is a symptom of innovation not a cause, and that focusing on creativty programmes was a waste of time (so it was controversial).”

    What’s the opinion on all of this?

  3. Harold

    The gardening metaphor is the same one that Jay Cross uses for informal learning, so I guess I won’t sue you, Alec 😉

    Thanks for adding so much to this post, Martin. I have to agree with Dave Snowden, as I see creativity as an emergent property of innovative organisations, not a simple process that can be managed, but a property that has to be nourished in many ways.

  4. John Hunter

    I do not believe process improvement is bad for innovation. Bad process changes can be bad for innovation. But if we are looking at a research and development organization where the output is new products then process improvement would be focused on improving the processes to make that happen. The type of process improvement would be different than those made to manufacturing a product better.

    Some six sigma efforts are little more than cost cutting efforts. And they then might claim a “process improvement” that is really just cutting costs in R&D. But we should confused bad management with the good strategy of process improvement. Here is a good example: Fast Cycle Change in Knowledge-Based Organizations by Ian Hau and Ford Calhoun

  5. Harold

    Thanks, John. The abstract looks interesting; especially the mention of a 60% improvement in cycle time.

  6. Tom Land

    The weakness of Six Sigma continues to be around managing the people side of organizational improvement. For example, when organizations reward employees for cost cutting and implementing innovative solutions by downsizing, is it any wonder that the idea pool will dry up? I believe the limitations of both Six Sigma and creating a Culture of Innovation lies not so much in the technology side, but inadequate attention to the roles leaders, suervisors, employees, teams, and organizational systems need to play to create successful results.

  7. Harold

    I agree, Tom, that culture and people are the keys to innovation and productivity. However, real innovation is disruptive and challenges the status quo, particularly leaders and supervisors. So how do you get organisational improvement (other than minor incremental stuff) when people’s jobs are tied to the status quo? The weakness of all process improvement initiatives is that they don’t look at culture.


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