The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design site published an interesting article on 3M and their struggle to find the right balance between efficiency, as represented by 6-Sigma, and creativity, as represented by 3M’s proud tradition of innovation. Some would say that 3M is a highly visible example of a company grappling with the fundamental contradiction that “managers trained in Six Sigma, which aims to reduce risk and variability, have a difficult time embracing design thinking and innovation because they aim to raise risk and increase variability.” There are certainly lessons of great interest to be drawn from 3M’s experience. But I don’t agree with the assertions that quality programs like 6-Sigma are an anathema to innovation.
Let’s begin by clearing up an oft stated misconception: innovation seeks to increase variability. This is not true. Yes, product innovation often seeks to identify new variants of existing products. However, the goal of that innovation is to arrive at specific well defined deliverables—not some hodgepodge of variable qualities. Also, properly implemented sustainable innovation programs reduce risk. The whole variability and risk discussion is a red herring. The reality is that innovation programs and quality programs are orthogonal and completely complementary.
In my own experience, I have seen that it is possible to implement programs to improve effectiveness in both areas simultaneously. I have done this to great benefit at the companies in which I have been a part. At no time has the implementation of rigorous quality management systems been in conflict with the need to drive innovation.
So what was behind 3M’s experience? Perhaps the answer is not so mysterious at all. The BusinessWeek article points out that Mr. McNerney set out to change the company’s DNA. While he may not have intended to eradicate the innovation gene, it would appear that this was the result. The reason why this happened can be gleaned from the article, in the comments of Stephen Boyd and Art Fry. Mr. Boyd states that 3M had inappropriately layered the traditional DMAIC 6-Sigma process over the innovation process. He goes on to state that the approach didn’t really fit. This is not surprising at all. As has already been stated, quality programs are orthogonal to innovation. As such, quality programs are not a substitute for innovation methods; they are just another aspect of the new product introduction process in which innovation and quality disciplines each have their own contributions to make.
Another interesting insight is provided by Mr. Fry’s comments about innovation being a numbers game. Here we are given insight that 3M’s innovation approach was basically the “let’s throw a lot of ideas on the wall and see what sticks” method. It is this that made 3M susceptible to the problem that they experienced in the end. While 3M’s culture clearly placed high value on innovation, it would appear, from Mr. Fry’s comments, that 3M didn’t actually have an understanding of how to practice the informed design methods of repeatable innovation. If 3M had had this understanding, the boundaries, as well as the points of synergy, between their innovation practices and the new 6-Sigma programs would have been clear.
It is ironic that 3M, one of the companies studied in Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, should stumble in this way. As Collins and Porras put it, visionary companies are able to have their cake and eat it too. These companies have found the way to break free of the tyranny of OR. Here was 3M’s failing; they did not find the way to both manage predictability and continue their tradition of innovation. Hopefully, they will get back on the right track under George Buckley’s management.
[Image Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine]