Businesses have spent billions of dollars training employees and launching lean, six sigma, lean six sigma, Kaizen or some other variation of continuous improvement initiatives with lofty expectations. Finding and then advertising the “quick wins”, zealous leaders begin proselytizing and training every other function in the company to use the same tools. Yes, even the creative artist in the design department needs training to make the process better. But there’s a better way to get better results: dump the lean six sigma program.
Most of the time continuous improvement initiatives are launched with great fanfare, significant investment, and grand expectations. But they are often fraught with misconceptions, false starts, and dubious results. Experts in academia and elsewhere even question whether or not the results that are achieved are sustained over time. Turns out, for a variety of reasons many improvement project “successes” have a very short shelf life. Frustrated with poor results, many companies re-launch their program, focus it more, and demand more from the people involved to get it right the second time around. After all, with so many dollars and careers heavily vested in a successful outcome, failure is no longer an option.
And that’s the part that’s easy to agree with: failure isn’t an option. Lean, six sigma and a robust set of continuous improvement tools have become an essential requirement for most companies to compete in the marketplace. Use of these tools is foundational to successful business. But the all-encompassing programs like lean and six sigma are not. Here’s why.
Means-Ends Reversal– Employees become focused on proliferating the continuous improvement program instead of proliferating what the program is really all about: innovation. The real goal of all continuous improvement programs is to offer a set of tools to identify and deliver value of some sort; either for customers or the business. Innovation is the development of an idea, any idea, into a commercialized reality that creates value. Most continuous improvement programs take the focus off of innovation and put it on the program. That’s a problem.
The Tyranny of Expertise– Called the tyranny of expertise, it becomes a roadblock to further innovation. Everyone starts out as a learner and progresses toward proficiency and “expertise”. Having been rewarded (in many different ways) for their success, they become enamored with and protective of the tools and their own expertise. This, in turn, leads to another problematic phenomenon known as “functional fixedness”. It doesn’t take long before [the paraphrased version of] an old saying comes true: “It’s amazing how all the problems in business look like a nail when the tool you have in hand is a hammer.”
It Stifles Innovation– No surprise here. When companies focus their efforts and millions of dollars of investment in bringing a continuous improvement program to life, that’s what they get… a program; a program for small ideas with a life and culture all its own with its own identity, trying to reproduce, preserving itself, resistant to change, focused on small, incremental improvements. And employees try to apply it to all kinds of problems and challenges they face even when they shouldn’t. Witness comments by Goeff Nicholson, the father of Post-It Notes on how six sigma killed innovation at 3M.
Instead of rolling out another (insert your favorite label here) continuous improvement program, companies should focus on rolling out innovation. That’s what they really want: all kinds of innovation, not just product or service innovation. So, since most employees don’t know how to get an idea to market, companies should not only train in the tools of lean, six sigma, and others, but also in [simplified versions of] concepting, building a business case, positioning, development, and commercializing to create value. After all, as the late Cynthia Rabe said in her book The Innovation Killer, “Consider this: Would you rather own stock in a company where all employees… were encouraged to think of new and better ways to do things? Or would you prefer the company that only asked the new product developers to think out of the box?”
Time for a new strategy. Time to reposition your continuous improvement program. Time to build a new business case that focuses on innovation and value creation. Time to dump Lean, Six Sigma, and Continuous Improvement.