Forget Silver Bullets And Instant Pudding

Innovation, leadership needed for organizational success


A PERSON once wrote a letter to W. Edwards Deming and asked for the formula to quality improvement. The person offered to pay whatever price Deming required. This led to what has become one Deming’s most famous quotes: “There is no instant pudding.”1

When you read this story, the ludicrousness of the formula request will become immediately apparent.

In the late 1990s, when Six Sigma began to be deployed outside of Motorola, a frequent comment was heard: “Six Sigma is not a silver bullet.” Six Sigma was never—and has not become—a silver bullet.

For someone to suggest Six Sigma is a silver bullet is another ludicrous comment that leaves you wondering: Is that person trying to make a real point or a significant contribution? Did this person have anything to say?

Could this possibly be the same person who had written to Deming?

Combining two ingredients

As an industry, we seem to have transcended from the territorial wars between the Six Sigma and lean camps to some higher level of consciousness. We have accepted there is a natural synergy between the two disciplines that, in most cases, is benefi cial to most organizations.

That synergy is not restricted to lean and Six Sigma. Most business improvement initiatives can be integrated, depending on the application, to benefi t an organization.

Does this not-so-new lean and Six Sigma alliance fi nally complete the formula for instant pudding? Have we fi nally created the silver bullet? Probably not. When you take the philosophy and tools from lean and mix them with the tools and methods of Six Sigma, you have a pretty close approximation of the Toyota Production System (TPS).

Different pudding recipes

The TPS is not a secret and has not been for decades. It has been poked, probed and studied by experts all over the world. Nobody can deny the success it delivered to Toyota. Does that make it the silver bullet for other organizations? Probably not.

The now legendary Toyota triumvirate of Taiichi Ohno, Yasuhiro Monden and Shigeo Shingo had a vision and strategy for a system that would create value for their organization:

  • They stayed the course and developed, implemented and tweaked that system until it fi t the organization like a glove.
  • They did not spend their time looking for a prefabricated answer to all their problems that might or might not work in their organization.
  • They took the time to understand their organization and their business and created a system that delivered the things they knew would make them a force in their industry.

After decades of work and tenacity, Toyota is reaping the rewards while thousands of people read, study, benchmark and pontifi cate. Others look for that dropin solution without putting in the work and creativity demonstrated by Ohno, Monden and Shingo.

We saw a similar situation when General Electric (GE) became visible to the public as it deployed Six Sigma. Had GE discovered instant pudding? Had it found a silver bullet?

People rushed to benchmark GE. Unfortunately, people who spend their lives rushing from one benchmark to the next because they have an innate lack of creativity typically lack the same creativity when they benchmark. They benchmark the convenient, the obvious and, oftentimes, the irrelevant. They ask:

“Did the GE program succeed because Black Belts did X number of projects per year in X amount of time per project? Was the average value per project one of the real factors that drove the GE success?”

GE was a fast moving train when Six Sigma jumped on. Several initiatives such as work out, change acceleration process and demand flow technology were already implemented. The Jack Welch leadership team had been in place and was experienced in leading the GE organization. When considering GE and Six Sigma together, keep in mind:

  • Was Six Sigma a silver bullet or just another piece of a strategy developed for and indigenous to GE?
  • Who could possibly believe they could copy the GE method without the GE culture?
  • How often do we see a GE internal expert- who can deliver effectively inside the GE culture-struggle when he or she tries to deliver something in the GE way outside the GE culture?

There is a codependency between method and organization that cannot be ignored or circumvented.

Follow the leader?

Let’s pretend you could benchmark and copy the GE or TPS. Does anyone honestly believe that he or she can beat either one of these giants at a game in which the giants have so much experience? These are not organizations that typically go head to head with an upstart company learning lessons from the masters.

As is the case in anything we study in the business world, there are winners and losers. What happens when one company follows a cutting edge company and comes up with an entirely different outcome? An outcome that is much less spectacular than what the company wanted from the model they copied so diligently.

Perhaps the answer is not in the initiatives. Most recently, we have developed a bad case of puppy love with the word “innovation.” We love the word but not necessarily the reality of innovation.

Management teams are now engaged in their latest form of leadership plagiarism as they again search for their silver bullet that will unlock the innovative spirit burning inside their workforce. With a few published conjectures, teams have even begun to wonder if their last silver bullet, Six Sigma, mortally wounded innovation.

The teams pose these questions as they move from a canned implementation of Six Sigma to a canned implementation of lean Six Sigma to a canned implementation of innovation. They are again turning a blind eye to the idea of leadership innovation as they search for a silver bullet or instant pudding to transform their organizations.

Innovation, passion and vision

If we benchmark the people who have delivered the great organizations, they were innovators. As much as we profess our admiration for Welch, it wasn’t long ago that he was blazing his own trail through corporate America. Most had no clue or understanding of what he wanted to accomplish.

Without regard for his detractors, Welch moved forward, just as Ohno, Monden and Shingo did. They all moved on passion and vision rather than political correctness.

There are no silver bullets or instant pudding waiting to be discovered. There never has been and never will be. This does not mean there is not some benefi t to be gained by an organization embracing Six Sigma, the new and improved lean Six Sigma or some other initiative.

The closest we will come to a silver bullet is innovative leadership. Courageous leaders have vision, take time to comprehend their own organizations and create an indigenous strategy to fi t their organization.

As a culture, we seem to pick and choose what we want to use from Deming. One of the documents he left us was his list of obstacles to improvement in which he identifies two key concepts that affl ict our business improvement efforts.

The first is searching for examples to steal, like attempting to find magical pudding recipes or silver bullets.

The second is that we search for help incestuously. We look for those experts that know our business.

Deming hypothesized that perhaps those experts know everything about our business except how to improve it. Perhaps the key to innovative leadership is to follow Deming’s advice. Maybe the innovative leader doesn’t know the business or refuses to settle for the drop-in solution.


  1. The Ohio Quality and Productivity Forum Roundtable, “Deming’s Point Seven: Adopt and Institute Leadership,” oqpf.com/download/demings_point_7.html+quality, productivity+and+the+competitive+position+%22Instant+ pudding%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=9&gl=us.

MIKE CARNELL is president and CEO of CS International in New Braunfels, TX. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Arizona State University.

--Dr. Ejaz Ahmed, 03-04-2008

--P.R.Ramesh, 02-08-2008

--Michael J. Orr, 01-17-2008

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