Six Sigma 'killed' innovation in 3M

Firms must define innovation and how it fits into the company's objectives. They should then provide the right support and avoid rigid processes hindering the creative process, says former 3M exec behind the Post-It note.

Post-It notes and facemasks are among some of the trademark products from 3M--a company which prides itself in innovation. In fact, it is ranked the world's third-most innovative company, after Google and Apple.

'15 percent time'

3M employees are allowed to use 15 percent of their time to pursue their own research outside their usual course of work.

That has been how many of its key products have come to light.

Youngbae Park, head of 3M's Singapore R&D center, said the program has evolved to becoming a culture at the company such that no one really "counts" the time spent on the program.

Innovation has become too much of a "buzzword", noted Geoff Nicholson, 3M ambassador, and former vice president for international technical operations. Nicholson is also widely regarded as the "father" of the Post-It note initiative.

Companies first need to define innovation and how it fits into their business plans, then provide the resources to support it, explained Nicholson, who was speaking at a recent media tour of 3M's research and development facility in Singapore.

"It is important to provide the leadership and then people know that they can practise innovation. That is part of the problem, people are afraid of failure. Maybe it's because of 'losing face' in an Asian society, but the fact of the matter is, failure is not failure. I would rather call it a learning experience," he said.

The 3M ambassador also outlined pitfalls companies should avoid in order not to stifle creativity:

  • Asking for a 5-year plan
  • Insisting people go through all levels with a new idea
  • Being control-conscious
  • Expressing criticism and withholding praise
  • Being suspicious of every idea that originates below you
  • Making a decision to reorganize in secret and maximize surprise

Rigid process a significant roadblock

The lack of freedom, or too strict a process, is also a significant roadblock, such as the Six Sigma process.

Six Sigma was popularized in the late 1990's and introduced into 3M by former CEO James McNerney, a former GE executive. It involves a set of process tools designed to eliminate production defects and wastage, and raise efficiency.

"The Six Sigma process killed innovation at 3M," said Nicholson. "Initially what would happen in 3M with Six Sigma people, they would say they need a five-year business plan for [a new idea]. Come on, we don't know yet because we don't know how it works, we don't know how many customers [will take it up], we haven't taken it out to the customer yet."

However, the 3M ambassador pointed out he had nothing against the Six Sigma, but felt it was not ideal for the creative process. "I met the guy who in fact put Six Sigma together and I said to him, 'What about innovation? Because at 3M right now we are having problems--we're being asked about Six Sigma and trying to utilize it in the creative stage'. He said it was never designed for that, it was designed for manufacturing when starting to scale up a product," said Nicholson.

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