The Quality/Creativity Paradox

In the June 11 BusinessWeek article, “3M’s Innovation Crisis: How Six Sigma Almost Smothered Its Idea Culture,” it seems the writer had his mind made up before he put pen to paper.

Brian Hindo’s article decries Six Sigma’s core tenets as damaging to corporate creativity: “When these types of initiatives become ingrained in a company’s culture, as they did at 3M, creativity can easily be squelched,” he wrote, referring to the methodology’s process focus.

While the author at least went through the motions in his research for the article—he spoke at length to two ASQ board members who are Six Sigma subject matter experts—he conspicuously omitted their comments from his story. They had given Hindo examples of companies using Six Sigma as foundations for business success—organizations where, at the same time, innovation was alive and well.

One might assume that these experts’ points, however salient, didn’t jive with the writer’s preconceived notions of Six Sigma as it relates to innovation. The article’s assertion is that, by nature, the two simply cannot co-exist.

When the article appeared on BusinessWeek’s website, www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_24/b4038406.htm, readers fired back.

“Take care not to bash Six Sigma,” one said. “The problem is not with the methodology itself but rather with how it is applied and what specifically it is applied to … If managed effectively, Six Sigma can absolutely co-exist with innovation!”

Many echoed the sentiment, even while the sources interviewed for the story—many of whom are 3M researchers and scientists—firmly reiterated that, in their opinions, Six Sigma absolutely does thwart innovation.

“You cannot create in that atmosphere of confinement or sameness,” current 3M CEO George Buckley says in the article. “Perhaps one of the mistakes that we made as a company—it’s one of the dangers of Six Sigma—is that when you value sameness more than you value creativity, I think you potentially undermine the heart and soul of a company like 3M.”

What’s your experience? Can Six Sigma and innovation work within the same four walls? Write to me, editor@asq.org, or post your comments on the QP discussion board at www.asq.org/discussionBoards (case sensitive).


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