Lean on me
What's great about Six Sigma, Lean and some of the other concepts currently being imported from manufacturing and process improvement in other business functions is that they seek to reduce cycle time and reduce waste. Those are great goals for innovative teams. Since product life cycles are getting shorter, a firm has less time to recoup costs of development and bring a new product to market. Bringing great new ideas to market faster is clearly a benefit. Reducing waste, primarily through reducing redundant projects and rework, will mean a greater focus on the ideas that "work" and pouring more resources into fewer, better ideas.
However, most of the business functions where Lean and Six Sigma concepts have worked have had a long-standing, well-defined business process already in place, and the implementation of Lean or Six Sigma or both have brought about tweaks or improvements to those existing processes. Is Lean or Six Sigma right for a business function or haphazard process that represents the state of the art for innovation in many businesses today? It seems to me that there are few documented processes that are followed repeatedly in innovation teams, and little consensus about how to innovate even within the same organization. Don't these issues need to be addressed first?
Also, Lean and Six Sigma have goals for reducing costs, reducing waste and reducing inefficiency. At some level, as much as we'd like to have a clear view of the products and opportunities available to us, there has to be some level of trial and error in innovation, especially in more disruptive innovation. If you can perfectly define the market for a product - the size of the market, the adoption rate of the product, then you are working on an incremental innovation at best. Most really interesting and disruptive products have completely outstripped any plans for the product, and Lean and Six Sigma really don't work well in situation that you can't quantify. Look at the RAZR for example. In my previous post I argued that the RAZR design team did a terrible job predicting the size and adoption of the product. Initially, they were going to make 2 million. They upped that to 20 million and ended up selling more RAZRs faster than even the Startac phone. Can lean and Six Sigma concepts work in an area that almost demands that we work on items that can't really be quantified. Does the culture of cost reduction, waste reduction and time reduction begin to force teams to discount ideas and opportunities that might take longer or have a higher risk profile?
So, I'm torn. What I like about Lean and Six Sigma:
- Proven to work and to be adopted by the organization
- Emphasis on a repeatable process
- Focus on cost reduction, waste reduction, cycle time reduction
What I don't like about Lean and Six Sigma:
- Will force the team to focus on short-term innovation only
- May place constraints on the team's thinking and risk taking
- Is not really about building processes, but about improving existing processes
I'd be interested in your thoughts. Feel free to leave me a comment and let me know what you think, especially if you've implemented Lean concepts or Six Sigma concepts as part of an innovation team.