Process improvement, like Six Sigma, stifles innovation. Process improvement is a tool set, not an overarching or unifying concept for an organization. Process improvement is a means — for certain contexts like manufacturing — and not an end in itself. The fundamental problem with all process improvement methodologies is that you get myopic. The evidence is clear.
“Since Frederick Taylor’s time we’ve considered business – our businesses – vast machines to be improved. Define the perfect set of tasks and then fit the men to the task. Taylor timed workers, measuring their efforts to determine the optimal (in his opinion) amount of work he could expect from a worker in a single day. The idea is that by driving our workers to follow optimal business processes we can ensure that we minimise costs while improving quality. LEAN and Six Sigma are the most visible of Taylor’s grandchildren, representing generations of effort to incrementally chip away at the inefficiencies and problems we kept finding in our organisations.” —Peter Evans Greenwood
“But simply following the steps of a process is no longer a guarantee of success, if it ever was. Business is increasingly complex and interconnected, and it seems unlikely any single system can tame it. The smart enterprise of the future will need a constantly evolving rotation of systems and skills, employed by adaptable and flexible workers. They will be harder to teach in a course, but they may outlast all the fads and fashions that preceded them.” —Whatever Happened to Six Sigma?
“Fifty-eight of the top Fortune 200 companies bought into Six Sigma, attesting to the appeal of eliminating errors. The results of this ‘experiment’ were striking: 91 per cent of the Six Sigma companies failed to keep up with the S&P 500 because Six Sigma got in the way of innovation. It interfered with insights.” —Gary Klein
A focus on reducing errors assumes that a work environment is complicated. However, a focus on improving insights understands that most work environments involving people are complex.
It’s time to leave error reduction to the replicable tasks that are more and more being done by machines and software. For the more complex work done by people, we have to find ways to improve insights, and social learning is how we do it. Social learning involves transparent knowledge sharing, questioning assumptions, and experimenting together. Time is needed for all of this, especially time for reflection, which is missing in too many workplaces. Some of that time can be gained from a less slavish adherence to error reduction programs like Six Sigma. To improve insights on an organizational level, all work must be focused on learning.
Work is evolving away from repeatable processes. Routine and even technical work will continue to get automated. The future of human work in the digital network era is in craft and creative work — focused on unique, non-replicable processes. Improving insights is critical for this type of work. Therefore, social and informal learning need to be integrated into the workflow. This is much more than courses-on-demand or performance support tools. It is connecting people and knowledge. Making these connections is the core of personal knowledge mastery.