Sunday, March 05, 2006

Is process improvement bad for innovation?

According to a piece on Knowledge @ Wharton the adoption of ISO 9000, Six Sigma, TQM and other similar initiatives can lead to a decline the innovation (subscription required). Basically, as you get better at your process (i.e. you go deeper into one thing) you don’t experiment as much around the edges (i.e. you don’t go wide.)

Actually, according to this piece its not just ISO 9000 and 6 Sigma, it is broader, any process improvement initiatives. And its partly to do with people’s approach, those who are happiest in innovative environments aren’t so happy in structured environments and vice versa.

For someone like me, who is keen on both process improvement (specifically Lean processes) and innovation this poses a dilemma. Am I, by advocating process improvement and the adoption of Lean techniques actually hindering innovation?

Could be.

I like to think the answer is No. Let me explain why.

I don’t advocate blanket adoption of a process. I don’t believe that a process that works for Team X will work for Team Y – even if they are in the same company. I believe different teams have different people and since no two people are alike, no two teams are alike and therefore no two processes can be alike.

Neither do I believe in Best Practice - at least not in the usual sense. The idea that Team X can document all their best practice and hand it over to Team Y, and then Team Y will be just as good (or bad) as Team X is bunk. Again, there are different people and different experiences in each team. Neither can you actually write this stuff down because so much is tacit.

And finally, I don’t believe management can set out a process and mandate its adoption.

What I do believe is: it all has to be bottom up. The teams need to do their own process improvement, they need to find what works for them, they need to work with the people and experience they have in the team. Teams need to innovate their own process.

Teams can tell other people what they do, they can give them ideas, inspire them, and even coach them but they can not throw it over the wall and expect it to work.

While teams can use books, journals, consultants, outside experience to get ideas and inspiration there comes a point when they need to move beyond other people’s ideas and start creating their own. Force-feeding will only get you so far; sooner or later the teams have to be self-sustaining. After all, your competitors can read the same books and hire the same consultants.

The important thing is, this is about bottom up innovation for improved process. I believe that once people get the hang of innovating then the skills and experience will transfer from process innovation to product innovation.

And thus, I don’t believe the kind of process improvement I advocate is incompatible with innovation.

Am I trying to have my cake and eat it? You tell me.