Efficiency or Creativity?

Business Week recently weighed in on the question of efficiency vs. creativity. This article has received wide attention with many newspapers like Economic Times (in India) syndicating this article. This is a  must read article.

The article squarely puts the blame on six sigma for the issues with creativity at 3M and other companies. As with many management fads, there are many flawed implementations of six sigma (possibly the one at 3M as well is flawed). But to just look at flawed implementations and blame six sigma for that does not seem appropriate.

Scott Berkun weighed in and correctly points out that making efficiency and creativity mutually exclusive is shallow thinking. Couldn’t agree more.

I have seen many successful implementations of 6 Sigma and it is really an extremely valuable tool to adopt. While the DMAIC variety helps improve existing processes, 6 Sigma also has the DMADV (or DFSS)  process for new products and new ideas. There is nothing in 6 Sigma inherently that inhibits creativity. Since most companies implement DMAIC, it appears at the surface of it, that only efficiency is encouraged. In my view, organization processes tend to become complex over time and become inefficient. DMAIC is very good at cutting this inefficiency out. Now how do you think a process gets improved? By applying creativity, of course. How can you improve anything without being creative?  So to say that 6 Sigma kills creativity is plain wrong. I would also dare you to show me a company that does not have ossified processes that need to be trimmed (except Toyota).  

The article also takes a dig at TQM. Again, TQM is sound but the implementations rarely are. I have seen some excellent implementations and I can tell you that innovation/creativity is at the very foundation of a good TQM implementation.

If you want to understand what TQM can do, look to Toyota – the God of Innovation (my opinion and many would agree). Here is an excellent article about Toyota’s system.

Sorry Business Week, we need you to provide sound research rather than circumstantial evidence to support your observations.  





  1. Anonymous said June 10, 2007, 1:45 am:

    Good article Sukumar. Very insightful.

  2. Anonymous said June 10, 2007, 4:44 am:

    Thanks Archana. -Sukumar

  3. Anonymous said June 17, 2007, 12:50 am:

    Sukumar – I am not sure I concur with you on this one. I agree with your assessment that process improvements necessitated by six-sigma need creativity and hence ss and creativity/innovation cannot be considered mutually exclusive. But I don’t think that was the point being made in the article.

    The main focus of the BW article was that Six-Sigma, while undoubtedly being a good approach to optimize an existing process, may not be as effective – and it may even be detrimental – in areas of ground-up innovation. There are way too many unknowns with new product/process innovation for six-sigma to work its magic. The DMADV appears good on paper but I am not sure if there are any good examples of where they have been used to improve the development process.

    I think this is also an issue of culture. Even if DMADV was viable, I doubt if the kind of record-keeping (to ‘M’easure) would be received well by the creative people who are in the forefront of new product innovation. The process may be seen as way too stifling and limiting of their creative zeal. It would not be an issue in the case of improving ‘existing process’ as the ‘measurement’ will most likely be done by those handling operations.

    I think the best way forward for a company like 3M would be to apply ss selectively. Use ss to improve the process where one exists and not use it to shackle new product/process creation.

  4. Anonymous said June 18, 2007, 9:52 am:


    I agree with you that the overall intent of the article is what you are saying it is. However, the problem is DMADV or DFSS is generally applied after you have decided an idea is worth pursuing. You can use any creativie technique to come up with the idea, but apply DFSS after you have decided to pursue it. So the idea of DFSS is to design the product/process for 6 sigma quality from the get go, instead of doing a DMAIC after it has been introduced. The overall problem with the article i noticed is that it seemed to generally pit 6 sigma against innovation/creativity which as we have seen is clearly not the case. As i said in my post, there are plenty of bad implementations of 6 sigma, TQM etc but that doesn’t make these techniques bad per se.

  5. Anonymous said June 19, 2007, 1:08 am:

    It does not appear from the article that the 6-sigma processes were being applied in 3M after an idea was found to be worth pursuing. It seems as if they were being forced upon the process of idea generation, and that might be the reason it is causing such resentment.

  6. Anonymous said June 19, 2007, 12:22 pm:

    That’s right Arun.that means its not a good implementation. And that’s my point – don’t pick bad implementations and conclude that 6sigma reduces creativity. That’s what BW did with this article and that’s my peeve. -Sukumar