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Friday, June 15th, 2007


Steve DeAngelis at ERMB recently had an important and thought provoking post that should resonate with anyone who has experienced the imposing conformity of a corporate cubicle. In ” The Tension Between Creativity and Efficiency“, DeAngelis spotlighted an important area of friction as organizations struggle to adapt to macroeconomic shifts created by globalization and the information revolution. While the focus in Steve’s post happened to be corporations, it is a paradigm that applies equally well to public education, the military, intelligence agencies, universities – basically any entity that has a legacy organizational structure from the “mass-man“, ” second wave” era of industrial mass production and Cold War that was so deeply influenced by Tayloristscientific management“.

Specifically, Steve was looking at an article that detailed the implications for the rate of innovation of Six Sigma type programs. Some excerpts:

“The problem, according to the article, is that the culture created by Six Sigma clashes directly with the culture required for innovation.

“Now his successors face a challenging question: whether the relentless emphasis on efficiency had made 3M a less creative company. That’s a vitally important issue for a company whose very identity is built on innovation. After all, 3M is the birthplace of masking tape, Thinsulate, and the Post-it note. It is the invention machine whose methods were consecrated in the influential 1994 best-seller Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras. But those old hits have become distant memories. It has been a long time since the debut of 3M’s last game-changing technology: the multilayered optical films that coat liquid-crystal display screens. At the company that has always prided itself on drawing at least one-third of sales from products released in the past five years, today that fraction has slipped to only one-quarter. Those results are not coincidental. Efficiency programs such as Six Sigma are designed to identify problems in work processes—and then use rigorous measurement to reduce variation and eliminate defects. When these types of initiatives become ingrained in a company’s culture, as they did at 3M, creativity can easily get squelched. After all, a breakthrough innovation is something that challenges existing procedures and norms. ‘Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process,’ says current CEO George Buckley, who has dialed back many of McNerney’s initiatives. ‘You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself for three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday. That’s not how creativity works.'”

Does that mean that efficiency and creativity must always be at odds? Can the same company establish efficient processes and foster creativity? The article implies that it may be impossible.

….There are a couple of ways that companies can deal with this conundrum. The first is to separate creative portions of a company from process-oriented portions and apply different rules to the different parts. The second way to deal with the dilemma is to automate processes while leaving the people free to be creative. One of the reasons Enterra Solutions has attracted the interest of big companies is that they see the benefits of relieving people from the drudgeries of routine processes. Not only is process automation efficient and effective, even those who must deal with the rule automation process can be creative in how they approach their job. Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma approaches can be used to drive automated processes without having to change an entire company’s creative culture.”

Read Steve’s post in full here.

I agree with Steve that Six Sigma philosophy has it’s place, particularly in terms of final delivery of a service or good but it is ill-suited for maximizing potential productivity in the sense of generating that which is new. Six Sigma, TQM, ISO 900 and related “zero defects” mentality programs, applied unreasonably and unthinkingly across the board by Jack Welch wannabes, have significant costs. For example:

* The emphasis shifts from finding new opportunities to not making mistakes:

This inculcates a “gotcha” attitude in middle-management and makes employees exceedingly risk-averse, conservative and uncommunicative ( when management is hunting for mistakes that will hurt your career, do you run to the boss with bad news. Or do you keep your head down ?). Moreover, employees don’t actually have to “be” productive so much as they need to “appear” productive, relative to the instruments by which their performance will be measured. This analytically reductionist perspective discourages a systemic approach.

* It creates a focus on the present process, not alternative pathways:

Maximizing the present and applying multiple measurement tools for individual performance leaves little time or resources for ” unproductive” time for speculation, experimentation or planning. People tack to where their incentives are. Moreover, in the hands of middle-management the measurement tools begin to replace common sense in terms of driving the setting of daily objectives and prioritizing the use of time. Independent thought is strongly discouraged.

Creativity required for innovation requires behavior that is inherently “unproductive”. There is an apocryphal story of a woman being led on a tour of the Institute for Advanced Study, who was taken by an office where some old loafer had his feet up on a desk and his eyes were closed, hands serenely behind his head. The woman was indignant until her guide solemnly explained that she ” had been privileged to see the great Albert Einstein at work”. Creativity requires time to explore new things, time to engage in “free play” with co-workers, unstructured time, in other words. In my experience, allowing this to happen is something that appears to cause members of middle-management a significant degree of intense physical pain.

Organizational creativity requires employees who are both autonomous as well as autotelic, which means that their supervisors must be less “managers” and more ” leaders” with a style that emphasizes facilitation, connection, strategic thinking and motivation. A model suitable for flatter, flexible, networked-modular organizations rather than authoritarian hierarchies that implicitly encourages intrinsic motivation to create:

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