Monday, December 14, 2009

Six Sigma-Innovation Killer NOT!

I'm reading a new book that everyone should go out and buy. Its called The Brain Advantage, Become a More Effective Business Leader using the Latest Brain Research. A friend of mine is a co-author so I got a copy from him to read through. I'm only through Chapter 3 but already I've made several connections to my past experiences in leadership.

I'm going to share one of them with you here, then you go right out and buy the book.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a brief post about myths regarding Six Sigma. See the original post here. One myth that I addressed in that post was that Six Sigma is an Innovation Killer. This is the widely held conventional wisdom in publications such as Business Week that resulted from the withdrawl of Six Sigma from places like 3M in the recent past.

In The Brain Advantage I found an answer to why this myth persists and why Six Sigma may be perceived as an innovation killer. The answer is a simple as Right Brain vs Left Brain. In Chapter 1 and 3 of The Brain Advantage the authors discuss the commonly held misconception that Six Sigma is an innovation killer and research that indicates that innovation (literally the Eureka moments) are exclusively Right Brain activities, while process oriented scripts and routine tasks are the domain of the Left Brain. Further, the authors discuss how there is no bleed over in brain function between the right and left brain when it comes to innovation. Its as if the left side of our brains go to sleep while we think creatively exclusively in the right Anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus (ASTG).

We can apply this new learning to help overcome the bias against Six Sigma in innovation circles by intentionally setting the stage for innovation to occur within the steps of the Six Sigma method. So, follow the six sigma process to achieve a product or process design that meets or exceeds the customer need (Left Brain), but at the critical process steps where a innovative solution is needed, we must recognize that an intentional shift in focus is needed and that the environment for innovation has to be intentionally set that allows for the rules to be ignored, creativity to flow, and insights to occur (Right Brain). "Ok, great, how do we do that?" you might be saying. My advice to you is to contact the authors and ask them for some help, seems like their area of expertise to me.

Go buy the book, right now! You can find it here.


Tom Gaskell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Gaskell said...

Very thought-provoking, Jim; I must search out the book.

I occasionally get resistance from a few R&D folks to any formal methods (ISO 9001, Six Sigma, etc) because they believe it kills their creativity.

It need not do so, of course. As you say, there's a time and place for everything - the trick is knowing when to be freely creative and when to just follow the process in a more routine way. Good project or programme managers should have that planned out so they are in the right mode at the right time; what I have taken from your blog piece is to make that far more explicit (i.e. conspicuous).

I am having a bit of a 'hearts and minds' session with a client tomorrow who has some R&D concerns about ISO 9001 so I shall raise this with him; thank you for the article.

Tom G.

Jim said...


My pleasure and please let me know if this helps in your discussion with your client tomorrow. ISO always gets the same knock as Six Sigma when it comes to innovation for much the same reason, ISO defines processes and steps that must be followed (left brain stuff), while innovation doesn't follow a rule book.


Brad said...

Hey Jim,

Great post. The innovation people always get nervous when you talk about methods or processes. But in reality, you need both to be efficient and focus in innovating. As we said in the book, imagine a Jazz band trying to improvise without a common key or tempo. It wouldn't work very well.

Good process simply focus your attention on a set of activities or issues to consider. They don't dicate what you actually think. In fact, without them, you are going to be like the Jazz band with each person playing hiw or her own tune - some related to the current situation and others not related at all.

Six Sigma and other quality processes also set constraints which is another necessity for innovation. After all you don't have to be very creative when your process can take as long as you want,cost as much as you want, and have as much variability as you want. That's easy. Real innovation comes when you make the process work within some pre-defined set of constraints.

Jim said...


I think the big lesson for me is that anyone who is promoting process needs to understand the disconnect that process creates with creativity and build intentional off-ramps from process that make creativity OK. I agree with you about the pressure necessary. "Invention is the mother of necessity."


Eternal Lizdom said...

I work for a company that was purchased by 3M 2 years ago. Prior to the acquisition, we were a "Kaizen" company and frequently held week long, cross functionality events for problem solving and process improvement.

I'm very new to Six Sigma as it has been brought to us by 3M. So I'm curious as to the idea that 3M is abandoning Six Sigma. It's still very alive and well- it's required training and we were required to immediately get our engineers up to Black Belt level.

Alright- back to perusing your blog!

Jim said...


Thanks for checking out the blog. I actually got the info about 3M and six sigma from a busienss week article about Six Sigma and Innovation some time ago. I'll search for it when I get home and link to it for you to check out.

Jim said...


Here is the Business Week article I mentioned. A bit dated so I'm glad to hear that Six Sigma is alive and well at 3M. Business Week doesn't get it right all the time.