In its new article on 3M, formerly a giant of innovation, BusinessWeek makes a point that’s obvious but often overlooked:A sharp focus on efficiency, in making existing products or in other processes, can detract from innovation in thinking up new products.
“Efficiency programs such as Six Sigma are designed to identify problems in work processes—and then use rigorous measurement to reduce variation and eliminate defects. When these types of initiatives become ingrained in a company’s culture, as they did at 3M, creativity can easily get squelched. After all, a breakthrough innovation is something that challenges existing procedures and norms.
” ‘Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process,’ says current CEO George Buckley, who has dialed back many of McNerney’s initiatives. ‘You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself for three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday. That’s not how creativity works.’ “
That comment applies both to “step-by-step” experimental innovators and to “breakthrough” conceptual innovators, two types of innovation that are evident in the 3M discussion. Well-deserved scorn goes to the spurious notion of improving the supposed process of getting breakthrough ideas from experimental innovators.
“Consider, for example, the Post-it note. Its inventor, Art Fry (pictured), a 3M scientist who’s now retired, and others fiddled with the idea for several years before the product went into full production in 1980. … Defenders of Six Sigma at 3M claim that a more systematic new-product introduction process allows innovations to get to market faster. … In fact, (Fry, who invented Post-It notes in his 40s) places the blame for 3M’s recent lack of innovative sizzle squarely on Six Sigma’s application in 3M’s research labs. Innovation, he says, is ‘a numbers game. You have to go through 5,000 to 6,000 raw ideas to find one successful business.’ Six Sigma would ask, why not eliminate all that waste and just come up with the right idea the first time? That way of thinking, says Fry, can have serious side effects. ‘What’s remarkable is how fast a culture can be torn apart,’ says Fry.”