I recently came across this interesting article on the rise and fall of the Six Sigma methodology at General Electric and beyond:
The piece reminded me of how Six Sigma seriously undermined the creative capacity of 3M, long one of the world’s most innovative companies, a couple of decades ago. In 2001, newly appointed CEO James McNerney launched a company-wide rollout of Six Sigma with the goal of improving 3M’s operational efficiency. (Before arriving at 3M, McNerney had been a Jack Welch protégé at GE and, like Welch, was a fan of rigorous measurement and analysis.)
No part of the company was to be spared a full-immersion Six Sigma baptism, including product development and R&D, where McNerney hoped to systematize the innovation process. Within months, freshly credentialed black belts were fanning out across the company. Yet as the new disciplines took hold, 3M’s scientists and technical staffers felt increasingly beleaguered.
Under the new regime, every nascent research project had to be documented in a “red book.” Scores of charts and tables were required, detailing everything from potential commercial applications, to the exact size of the market and possible manufacturing concerns. Like many of his colleagues, Steven Boyd, a PhD researcher who had worked at 3M for 32 years, felt the Six Sigma initiative was hopelessly myopic: “You’re supposed to be working on something that is going to produce a profit, if not next quarter, the quarter after that.” In this kind of an environment, Boyd protested, 3M’s iconic Post-It notes would never have been born.
Under McNerney, blue-sky initiatives struggled to find funding and attention shifted to incremental projects. Historically, 3M had aimed to generate 30% of its revenue from products introduced within the past five years. By the time of McNerney’s departure in 2005, the revenue contribution of new products had slipped to 21%, and much of this came from a single category—optical films for flat screen displays. “Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process," says George Buckley, who succeeded McNerney as CEO and dialed back many of his predecessor’s initiatives. He went on to say:
"You can't put a Six Sigma process into an 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.”
Standards are important. You don’t want the person building your iPhone to improvise, yet there are limits to what can be routinized. To set standards, one must be able to specify the desired end state in advance, as well as the steps necessary to achieve it. This assumes the target is unambiguous and stable. It further assumes that the tasks for hitting the target are not contingent on local conditions. Finally, one must know enough about the surrounding tasks to ensure the standards won’t inadvertently undermine the pursuit of other equally important ends. As the case of 3M demonstrates, standardization becomes toxic when conformance aficionados ignore these limits.