Six Sigma 'killed' innovation in 3M

Six Sigma 'killed' innovation in 3M

Summary: 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.

Topics: CXO, Emerging Tech, Tech Industry


Loves caption contests, leisurely strolls along supermarket aisles and watching How It's Made. Ryan has covered finance, politics, tech and sports for TV, radio and print. He is also co-author of best seller "Profit from the Panic". Ryan is an editor at ZDNet's Asia/Singapore office.

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  • Six-Sigma Killed 3M Innovation

    As the author suggests six Sigma did NOT kill innovation. I am a bit annoyed at that attention getting headline.

    The management staff that implemented six Sigma killed 3M Innovation by NOT UNDERSTANDING what six Sigma is and LACKING the INITIATIVE to study and understand the concept.

    Most likely the management staff was too cowardly to be critical of the consultants plan when presented to the executive level since the managers didn't understand six Sigma in the first place.

    Sadly, too many executives use consultants as genuine experts, which COST a LOT of money that the executive can not say was a waste, so they fumble through.

    I have used six Sigma techniques in new product design for over 15 years with great success.
    • ... and I can spin gold out of hay.

      Applying Six-Sigma to R&D forces all creativity to be linked directly to an established product, thus enforcing only incremental advances. Thomas Edison would have starved.
    • Agree - six sigma is a TOOL, and requires intelligence...

      as well as understanding to use it properly. I posit that Nicholson is laying blame at the wrong feet - perhaps because upper management in his company did not ASSURE that every employee at every level had a full understanding of six sigma, which includes WHERE it is applicable, and to what extent. It's obvious from the story that some employees were empowered without proper constraints on proper application of the tool. If Nicholson could not recognize it was inappropriate to apply in his area of influence, then he may also be faulted for not pushing back (with intelligence, mind you)....
    • That's the GE way

      Six Sigma was pushed into GE by Jack Welch who fundamentally misunderstood what it was supposed to be. He took a manufacturing statistical control process and tried to apply it to everything in the whole enterprise, whether it was a good idea or not. Six Sigma is *great* at its intended purpose - improving and maintaining manufacturing quality - but *horrible* when applied to anything else. So, when a GE guy took GE's across-the-board application of Six Sigma to 3M, he got the same results that GE got - nice improvement of manufacturing yields and a crapload of wasted money and time on everything else. This should not have surprised anyone.
  • Common Sense

    If process doesn't add to the total success of the business throw it out! ITIL is the thing now in IT organizations and i have seen the strick interpretation of it bring IT organizations to a grinding halt leadership and managers fail to apply common sense to process which leads to productivity losses meassured in dollars. Leaders and managers have to ask themselves do you want your people working on process tasks 90% of the day or work towards growing and keeping your environment benefiting the business and maximizing ROI?
    • The problem with common sense is

      it is not very common!
  • Process over innovation

    We have recently become a part of a larger, world-wide company and can relate!

    It is necessary to have products go through a "process" so that no legal steps are missed and so that the thousands of employees around he world are in on the act so that mistakes are not made. Yes that does bump up against the free-wheeling system that was previously used to innovate our way into the "thousand pound gorilla" position in the US market, literally driving all of our competitors out of business.

    The "P" word, planning does become very important when the VP of sales can't just walk down the hall and get word that a feature was added that he should tell his sales force about or the production supervisor doesn't react well to a change in his manufacturing procedure for a product. Today's scalability challenge is to let the innovation engine crank out the future with exceptional people without spoiling the launches for those who absolutely depend upon every t crossed and i dotted by a certain date.

    If top management insists and won't give any funds without a protracted, politically-charged approval and budget process, you have two choices for success -- cheat, or update your resume when somebody more agile steals your customers and market.

    But the six bullet points on actions to avoid are eerily familiar.

    To be honest, I am disappointed with this flavor of the 3M culture -- I always held them up as the shining example of innovative processes with their "intraprenurial" flavor that among other things, yielded Post It Notes.
    • Yet another story of tool mis-use

      A tool is only as good as its' design, and the understanding of whomever is using it. Way too many lazy people have been guilty of chalking some tool up to being a "magical cure-all", and that is never the intent of ANY tool. Proper understanding of any tool's intent and limitations (every tool in existence has limitations) is key to using it most effectively. If the tool doesn't perform to "expectations", then there has to be a disconnect between the expectations and the design of the tool, and both need critical review. THAT should be the function of upper management.
  • Dangers of cargo cult process selection

    Inevitably when ever you read anyone's blog or article about why X process sucks, somewhere buried in the article is the phrase, 'X was brought into the organization by Y'. Y being some VP or CEO who was recently acquired. Sometimes within a company, one division will have success with a process and then it will be forced upon a different division as well.

    The fact is, any process only solves a finite set of problems for any particular company. They also create a set of problems too. Simply taking something that worked for a set of problems in one area and expecting it to perform in another without examining why it worked, is the definition of a cargo-cult. What good managers need to do, is to understand what needs fixing, who the employees are who 'need' process and how these employees react to process. Then you must match that to known processes to find something that 'helps'.

    Finally, managers need to 'understand' a process before they adopt it. Most often, processes have inter-related tradeoffs that aren't immediately obvious. The trade-off in scrum's standup meeting, is in return for meeting daily, the team of employees get to plan amongst themselves. The purpose isn't to deliver status, but to coordinate effort in tackling a known set of problems. The observation of this meeting, and it effects on the planning tracking mechanism (task board), indicates status as a side effect. This was designed into Scrum. Managers implementing Scrum without understanding this, will take over these meetings, turn them into status meetings, drag the time to half an hour or longer, and cause numerous blogs and articles to be written on how scrum sucks.
    • ...And that is the reason why Six Sigma was originally...

      a "waterfall" course - the education (which MUST include understanding of tool's abilities & limitations) has to begin AT THE TOP, and then each management level must teach it to the next lower level, until everyone has the same understanding of the tool, how to best use it, where it should not be used, etc. Any company who does not follow Motorola's original educational design for this tool is only acting foolishly, and are condemning the tool to failure.
  • You can't productionise Inovation

    You can't productionise innovation.

    Introducing this was a moronic thing to do.

    6S is squeezing your manufacturing and business processes to improve what they produce, and the quality of it. Innovation has already done the blue sky thinking, devised, propotyped and market researched the product, decided it is a goer- and into manufacturing - make it, make it work and make it efficiently, where 6S comes in.

    Business School Management-speak. Fail.

  • Amen

    For 25 years, I worked for a company that provided products for a particular professional market. Five years into that span, we were absorbed into a giant company that had also swallowed several similar companies. Each group continued to innovate and all of our customers remained loyal and generally happy. Company engineers remained close to the customer base and we could quickly address problems and needs.

    Then the founder of the corporation was pushed out by the Wall Street types--a glorified set of accountants. These clowns had no idea what our groups and our markets were about, but they knew how to write down numbers in a spreadsheet. They could quantify everything and they could qualify nothing. Six Sigma was one of those things they forced down our throats, having read about it in a book somewhere. Time to market stretched and stretched, products became less innovative and suited to task. Customers found other places to go, but the accountants continued to pat themselves on the back because they had brought order to chaos. The sales losses were hung on engineers, marketers, customers--every place but where they belonged.

    Six Sigma may be good for something, but you're not going to get any praise from me. In the hands of idiots, it destroyed a company.
  • Six Sigma is a Hoax

    Six Sigma and other such processes aim at giving labels for common sense... It tries to make itself look good - there is no practical use of it over common sense. This article would explain much better. Use your common sense.