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.Â 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.Â 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.