Practically every company has heard of continuous improvement techniques, from Lean to Six Sigma to 5S. But a new post from the Harvard Business Review reminds everyone that no improvement program prevents us from needing to think clearly.
Blogger Ron Ashkenas writes that:
…Iconic six sigma companies in the United States, such as Motorola and GE, have struggled in recent years to be innovation leaders. 3M, which invested heavily in continuous improvement, had to loosen its sigma methodology in order to increase the flow of innovation. As innovation thinker Vijay Govindarajan says, “The more you hardwire a company on total quality management, [the more] it is going to hurt breakthrough innovation. The mindset that is needed, the capabilities that are needed, the metrics that are needed, the whole culture that is needed for discontinuous innovation, are fundamentally different.”
Here at Slaughter Development, we’re no stranger to the problems with six sigma. We’ve reviewed the issues with Lean management as well. That’s not to say that these approaches are entirely bad. Rather, that it is the thinking and questioning done by stakeholders which makes the different. The copyrighted process improvement technique is not what’s important. It’s the people that matter.
In fact, we covered this over three years ago in a piece called Slaves to Methodology:
[Recall] a familiar saying: there are no silver bullets. This expression reminds us not to put too much stock in comprehensive methodologies. However, the bullets are not without value. Peter Drucker says it best: Plans are worthless, but planning is invaluable. The benefit of a methodology is not in adhering to the practice, but in being methodical.
Harvard Business Review is right: continuous improvement is important, but not because we stick to officially approved methods. Rather, we must engender a mindset of always improving, always questioning, always thinking of better ways. Only when individual stakeholders are part of the process will true continuous improvement be at the center of the organization.