Process vs Innovation

by Mitchell Gooze

Many pundits argue that the current path to competitive advantage is by out-innovating the competition; as opposed to focusing on being more efficient than the competition. The unstated theory being that one of these two approaches is the strategy of success. A cursory review of business history shows that these two pendulum end-points are touted as the “secret to success” as the pendulum swings over time.

Since the pendulum has moved back to innovation, commentators are now discussing whether 6-Sigma or business process management is compatible with innovation success. (The fact that the two terms 6-Sigma and business process management are considered interchangeable is its own problem).

As an example a former GE executive, James McNerney, hired by 3M as the first outside CEO, ruined 3M’s innovation engine by blindly applying 6-Sigma everywhere including in innovation, where it cannot work. The result is a company whose innovation engine stalled to the point where rather than 1/3 of sales coming from new products; that number dropped to 25%. Fortunately (or presciently), McNerney found another job running Boeing, so he won’t be around to live with whatever crop he sewed.

The implication being that process management and/or 6-Sigma has no business in innovation because it will kill innovation. That’s just not true … provably.
6-Sigma is a tool. It is a set of methodologies designed to remove variation from processes. If process variation is a root cause problem of poor performance, than 6-Sigma is an appropriate tool. If process variation is not a root cause problem of poor performance, than 6-Sigma is probably not the right tool.

Unfortunately, like other methods before it such as re-engineering, 6-Sigma has been redefined by consultants and some executives to mean process improvement management. It is a useful method for improving processes where limiting variation is an important goal. It is not useful in many other process improvement projects. However, as the old saying goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Using the 6-Sigma “hammer” on the front-end of the innovation process is unlikely to help anything … except consultant’s billing rates. The creative front-end of the innovation cycle is not about reducing variation, it’s about exploration.

Does that mean that 6-Sigma or process improvement management has no place in the innovation process? Of course not. First of all 6-Sigma is a process improvement management method and it may be useful on the back-end of innovation where you are moving the product into initial production and market launch. I can make a substantial case that reducing the variations in getting new products into production and into the market are critical needs. And to blindly suggest that process improvement management is not right for innovation is just ignorant.

Rigid processes don’t work well in flexible-need environments. However, to suggest that process management doesn’t add value in adaptable environments is misguided. If you ever have the unfortunate need to be in a trauma center, you better hope they have a work process that will save your life and that that process is adaptable in case what they originally think they are dealing with is not actually the issue.

Mitchell Goozé is a speaker and consultant. If you are interested in using him as a consultant, better information is available at: http://www.mitchgooze.com/