Renewing Innovation at 3M

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There’s a really good article in the June 11 issue of BusinessWeek about the tension at 3M between a free-spirited innovation culture and an efficiency-focused Six Sigma culture. 3M’s last CEO, James McNerney, came from GE and spread Six Sigma throughout the 3M organization, including in places where some people felt it shouldn’t be, such as the R&D labs. The new CEO, George Buckley, appears to be rolling some of these efforts back and trying to re-invigorate the open-ness to uncertainty and risk that innovation requires.

The article raises some fundamental questions about the balance between bottom-line and top-line growth and what the optimum tools, processes and attitudes are to achieve those, and hammers Six Sigma pretty hard in the process.

Some excerpts:

Efficiency programs such as Six Sigma are designed to identify problems in work processes - and then use rigorous management to reduce variation and eliminate defects. When these types of initiatives become ingrained in a company’s culture, as they did at 3M, creativity can easily get squelched. After all, a breakthrough innovation is something that challenges existing procedures and norms. “Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process,” says Buckley, “You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that 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.”

[T]he very factors that make Six Sigma effective in one context can make it ineffective in another. Traditionally, it uses rigorous statistical analysis to produce unambiguous data that help produce better quality, lower costs, and more efficiency. That all sounds great when you known what outcomes you’d like to control. But what about when there are few facts to go on - or you don’t even know the nature of the problem you’re trying to define?

Hellooo wicked problems! These are actually the types of situations where an overly data driven and prescriptive model can stifle competitiveness.

Early during the Six Sigma effort [at 3M], after a meeting at which technical employees were briefed on the new process, “we all came to the conclusion that there was no way in the world that anything like a Post-it note would ever emerge from this new system.”

The Post-It note is of course a famous story about how a “useless” invention - the non-sticky adhesive - led to a massive profit generator after years of tinkering and searching for the right application. Since its launch, innovation and design consultants have made Post-Its  as core to their processes as pencils and computers. Art Fry, the Post-It inventor, notes in the article that innovation is “a numbers game. You have to go through 5,000 to 6,000 raw ideas to find one successful business.” Something which organizations primarily focused on efficiency have a hard time comfortably accommodating.

Read the whole article at IN online