I have extensively used both Lean and 6 Sigma in the projects I have delivered over the years. I strongly believe in both methodologies and believe that they can greatly improve performance when applied correctly and in combination with tailored management systems. It was therefore quite a surprise when, during a conversation with a top personal coach, I heard the opinion that “Lean/6 Sigma hinders innovation”. My initial reaction was to totally and absolutely disagree with this statement. However, I began to think. What if there is some truth to this? What if it really can hinder innovation and if so, when does that occur?

Let’s start by re-examining the concept of Lean. In its simplest form the philosophy “considers the expenditure of resources in any aspect other than the direct creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination” [Wikipedia]. It includes waste reduction and workflow smoothing (which too can be seen as waste reduction). This means the reduction of anything that does not directly bring value to the end client. 6 Sigma on the other hand “seeks to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects (errors) and minimizing variability in manufacturing and business processes” [Wikipedia]. Both methodologies try to stabilize the process to which they are applied. They are trying to make what is already there to be as efficient as it can be.

This is where it becomes interesting. If a process is looked at from a Lean perspective then we are trying to eliminate everything that does not create value for the client or creates waste. Innovating a process, or a product, does not necessarily add value to the product. The resulting process or product might be more valuable to the client but does not have to be. Therefore, from a purist Lean perspective innovation could probably be removed. The situation is similar with 6 Sigma. Innovation does not remove variability. If anything, it probably adds a new level of variability to the process. Even here, if applying to the letter 6 Sigma concepts we would probably try to minimise any innovation. Neither of these methodologies is trying to innovate, they are only trying to improve what is already there.

But what if innovation leads to reduced waste or reduced variability? That of course does also frequently happen. However, unless we are looking at a design of a new process or a new product, these changes will only affect a few activities within the process (and will probably be welcomed by the practitioners). These changes will do what the methodologies advocate. Product innovation on the other hand does not promote process improvement as such. Therefore it needs to be executed outside of the production process as the methodologies do not really advocate it.

The “risk to innovation” comes about only if the Lean 6 Sigma concepts are applied without thinking on a broader level. This happens when management believes that these methodologies will solve all operational issues and, the perception is that “there is no real need for further innovation”, as this is taken care of by the methodologies. This is never the case; neither of these methodologies deals with innovation. Unfortunately, if that belief is present in an organisation then the risk of operational stagnation is genuine.

By Peter Kristoffersson