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How to do the splits…or 3M difficulties

six sigmaIt’s been a long time a wanted to write something about what 3M experienced in their Six Sigma project. Happily this note from Rex Lee in reaction to the same article I read a few weeks ago, woke me up.

What’s the issue ?

In its quest for an increased efficiency, 3M implemented the Six Sigma methodology, reaching the expected goals one the one side, but encountering unexpected difficulties on the other hand. 3M has been betting on innovation since its very beginning, and innovation has been key in the company’s success so far. A recurring fact is that 33% sales used to be made of products conceived in the last 5 years, a proof that innovation way really key in 3M capability to be a successful company.

The point is today the “new product” share has downed to 25% of the total sales. And it was easy to point up the cause : six sigma. And one question had to be asked : how what is efficient on a short track coulb be a threat on a long track ?

What did really happen ?

Six Sigma is an excellent mean for measuring performance and efficiency based on deviation analysis between what’s expected and what’s actuallu done. The purpose is to reach a zero deviation production. It’s easy to understand the benefits of this method in a production process, all the more when using deviation measurement as an analysis tool.

In this case the problem is deviation measurement. It’s the perfect solution in a process that aims to replicate the same thing again and again. Does innovation match this need of repeating exactly the same things to get to the same result ? Not at all.

The paradox is innovation is about deviation. If new avenues aren’t explored, if breakthrough thinking is forbidden, innovation is impossible.

Why have we waited so long to realize that ? Because the common view so far was some people were able to innovate and the others were only able to produce. The first were in their bubble and weren’t impacted by such methods. As enterprises are becoming more and more conscious that each employee is a potential innovator and that innovation is not a centralised process anymore but a distributed one, it’s becoming obvious that the “six sigmaed” employee had lost his capacity for innovation. 3M is a good case study : it was one of the first companies in the world that actually had this distributed innovation, and by the the way one of the companies that really suffered of this paradox.

We may also wonder if six sigma is compatible with the and immaterial economy. Of course there will always have to be a production process that will have to be reproduced again and again. But what is produced doesn’t have to because every case is unique so everything that’s delivered is supposed to be unique too.
In a world where the “product” is mostly defined by a person or a group’s ability to build something specific, on demand, deviation will become the standard. Without forgetting that deviation won’t be acceptable in intervention and decision process. So how to build a system that will take into account both “zero deviation policy” (how we decide, how we produce) and “needed deviation policy” (what is conceived, what is produced, how to have a flexible organization in a project….).

An interesting debate…and I don’t have a perfect answer yet. Interesting also because I’m sure it has something to do with the paradigm shift that will help enterprise 2.0 adoption.

Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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