The Six Sigma movement has made impressive contributions to business performance. Both at the product and process level we have seen dramatic improvements in cost, quality, and cycle-time. Business decisions are becoming more data-driven. Poor performance is not tolerated.
But one area where Six Sigma has not helped is innovation. And that is because innovation is antithetical to the whole philosophy of Six Sigma. The organizing principle of Six Sigma is to find and remove variation. Consider the five steps of Six Sigma: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, and Control. Define is focused on setting the standard. Measure determines the current performance. Analyse determines whether the performance meets the standard and if not, why not. Improve changes the standard or performance until the variation is minimized. Control introduces a system to ensure that performance doesn’t change.
Innovation, especially break-through innovation, is incompatible with the Six Sigma philosophy. For starters, the Define step cannot define a standard for something that does not yet exist. Next the Measure step is unable to adequately measure performance that is undefined. With no standard and an undefined performance measurement, the Analyse step is meaningless. So what happens in the Improve step is that performance is driven back to the old known standard, which squeezes out the innovation. And the Control step ensures that innovative performance is not allowed back into the product, service or process. Add the rigid DMAIC process discipline to this and all attempts to try something different and new are not just curtailed, they are punished.
Even the Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) technique seldom leads to innovation. This approach starts with defining the desired customer experience. But customers can’t define an experience for innovative product or service because they have never experienced it yet. So customers define enhancement to existing products and services. This may lead to small incremental improvements, but not break-through innovation. The rest of the DFSS methodology will impose the rigid Six Sigma discipline on the development of these minor improvements and ensure high-risk breakthrough innovation ideas are squashed.
So what is the answer? First, don’t even think about imposing Six Sigma on R&D or product development processes. If you want some control and discipline, use a Stage-gate or Agile approach to project management and use road-mapping to guide your research efforts. While these approaches don’t ensure innovation, at least they do not prevent it.
The time to bring in Six Sigma is at the time of detailed design or transfer to production. By then the concept has been shown to be feasible. Often there have been several demonstration models or prototypes created. It is possible to now set standards and begin to measure performance around the innovative concept. The customer or user can define their desired performance level with the innovative product or service. Now the Six Sigma discipline starts to make sense and it can actually aid in ensuring the quality of the start-up of the new product or service.