In the past I have argued that Lean Six Sigma has its limits and that care should be taken when applying it to innovation. My recommendation was based on observations that organizations which tried to do this essentially quashed innovation by trying to measure innovation using the kind of metrics used for operational processes. I concluded that the attempt to measure creativity as if it were a process was a misapplication of Lean Six Sigma that practitioners should avoid.
True enough, but not the whole story. The fact is that when I look at what my clients do with Lean Six Sigma, and review projects from students, I can see that they are, in fact, innovating. In Phase I, when companies begin Lean Six Sigma, it is usually viewed as an initiative and the first efforts focus on creating a culture where change is possible, organizing an infrastructure for change, training a cadre of part- and full-time change agents, and pursuing projects chosen to move the organization towards its vision. This sets the stage for innovation. The real transformation here is in the way people in the organization think, specifically:
- They are fact and data driven. Opinions are considered the source of hypotheses to be tested, not absolute truth. The change agents have the tools they need to rigorously test these hypotheses.
- They are customer focused and they know how to identify the voice of the customer. This gives them insights into customers needs that go well beyond what customers explicitly say their needs are.
- They think of organizations as processes as well as functions. They understand that functions exist to serve stakeholders and enable core processes.
- They understand variation differently than their untrained counterparts. They know that some variation demands an immediate response, but other variation requires system changes. They know how to tell one type of variation from the other.
- They think of results as stemming from systems rather than individuals.
- They know that outcomes–both wanted and unwanted–are caused, and they know how to drill down to these causes. I.e., they understand that processes are transfer functions that transform inputs into outputs.
- They understand the importance of focusing on the few critical to quality drivers, and how to identify them.
- They know how to organize people for change.
By design the time spent as a full-time change agent is limited. Black Belts serve their terms and return to the organization in other roles. As time goes by these Lean Six Sigma change agents begin to change the organization’s DNA. Phase II occurs as the culture change takes hold and the change agents, now in key leadership positions, see the Lean Six Sigma approach as the best way to lead the organization towards its vision. They see that they can create new and innovative ways to serve their customers’ latent needs based on the intimate knowledge of the customer and the insights gained using Lean Six Sigma on a smaller scale. They better understand the organization’s capabilities based on experiences learned during the deployment of the initiative. Lean Six Sigma moves far beyond discrete improvement projects and becomes the framework for leading the organization as a whole towards its vision.
Lean Six Sigma also teaches leaders a new way to lead. Their involvement in defining the organization’s core processes and enabling functions, identifying process owners, finding opportunities for improvement linked to their strategies, defining the drivers of these opportunities, selecting relevant metrics for the drivers, and linking the metrics to activities throughout the organization (including but not limited to Lean Six Sigma projects,) gives them a new way to get things done.
The combination of a new way of thinking, intimate knowledge of the customer, a culture that embraces and expects change, and a powerful new way to lead, makes it possible for the leadership to bring together disparate parts of their organization all focused on a single purpose: wowing the customer. In short, innovation. This is not the aforementioned clumsy and ill-advised attempt to measure the unmeasurable or to “manage the innovation process,” it is an inspired expansion of the scope of Lean Six Sigma from a purely operational improvement tool to a purposeful search for innovative improvement opportunities. It is the application of the core principles of Lean Six Sigma to the problem of creating a resilient organization that not only responds quickly to changing customer needs and competitive pressures, but also improves the human condition by creating products and services never before conceived.
In summary, Lean Six Sigma becomes the springboard for continuous innovation. It’s a natural extension of the idea of continuous improvement.