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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:

9 Responses to “”

  1. Maarja Krusten Says:

    Very interesting, Mark, thanks for posting about this. I wish more historians were interested in management science. You also may find interesting “Why Corporate Web Workers Look Unproductive,” at
    I saw a link to that earlier this year on the records management listserv, of all places.

    As to the slides you posted, I found myself nodding when I saw that the list included as a condition for creativity “a safe space (ability to say potentially ‘dumb’ things).” Oddly enough, my nodding in agreement resulted less from my 34-year federal career and more from my experiences in looking in on various Internet forums (blogs, listservs, mailing lists). It takes a great deal of skill to invite and keep flowing free and open discussion. You have to recognize how people communicate. (I find that knowledge of Myers-Briggs helps diverse groups work better, although MBTI is imperfect.)

    In looking at web forums, it surprises me sometimes how few people know how to create such conditions. Don’t you find in web forums that you can almost pick out the people you would want to worth with or for or have working for you as subordinates, and the ones you would shy away from? Or to identify the ones who are or would make good managers or inspirational leaders as opposed to the ones who might not?

    Which brings me to my second point – people skills. No matter what management fad is in vogue at any time, a consistent through-line is the value of managers and leaders who understand basic human psychology. Check out “The Role of the Executive Today” at
    and you will see a very insightful executive from McCormick Industries speaking before the Industrial College of the Armed Forces — in 1959. His words differ greatly from what one associates with the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

    Finally, although I understand why too many layers of management often are criticized as inhibiting innovation, here, too, much depends on people skills. By that I mean the skills of both the boss and the team members. During the hierarchical flattening that resulted from the Clinton-era NPR initiative, I remember hearing about one office (not at my federal agency) that descended into chaos because middle managers were removed. This was done not because the middle managers were not needed (they actually had key roles in training and advising subordinate staff) but because the agency had been ordered to cut down on supervisory staff. It was purely a numbers game.

    As it turned out, in the unit in question, the boss at the top was too busy and too out of touch to pay attention to what was going on within the work teams. Left alone, dominant and aggressive personalities often prevailed within the teams, by sheer force, squelching the consideration of some good ideas from less combative people. The boss didn’t have the “radar” to pick up on this. If the boss had been more skilled at anticipating how people might interact, he might have brought in facilitators who knew how to handle bullying. That didn’t happen and the team members were left alone to work things out, with mixed results at best. So the question is not just how many layers you have but who the incumbents are who play key roles within teams or in management positions.

    Speaking of government, while I still was working at NARA’s Nixon Project, we did a fascinating oral history interview with Roy L. Ash, chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Executive Organization and director of OMB from 1972 to 1974. He offered some interesting insights into what is possible in the private versus the public sector based on his work experiences (his time at Litton Industries and his service in the Nixon administration).

  2. Dan tdaxp Says:

    A very good post. A focus on rules, controls, and rulesets necessarily lowers an organization’s flexibility and makes institutionalizing mistakes far more possible. It’s a difficult problem for Enterra to tackle. Props to DeAngelis for facing it head-on.

  3. deichmans Says:

    Dan has captured an important idea behind Enterra — that our Enterprise Resilience Management Solution can also point out incompatibilities within existing rules and regulations. When you start to interlace the volumes of regulatory policies and instructions, you give the decisionmaker the tools to make good management decisions in the operation of their enterprise.

    BTW: Enterra’s website has gotten a much-needed makeover:


  4. mark Says:

    Hi Maarja,

    Myers-Briggs representative sampling of an organization can be revealing, particularly when it indicates that they are hiring their way to groupthink.

    Regarding bullies – that’s a real problem, one dysfunctionally aggressive person can have a ripple effect across even a very large organization and these ppl tend to be quite skilled at giving superiors plausible reasons to look the other way (if they didn’t, they’d be fired immediately). The best bet is to root them out before they are even hired.


    Hi Dan,

    Gracias ! And true!

    Hi Shane,

    Automation also creates time, perhaps loads of time, by reducing uncertainty.

    It was a good facelift – did you have a hand in that ?

  5. deichmans Says:

    The credit for the enterrasolutions.com facelift goes to our CIO (Randy Copperman) and his killer net team of Doug Sarver and Frank Crum.

  6. Maarja Krusten Says:

    Myers Briggs generally is useful in understanding group dynamics. I learned my MBTI nearly 15 years ago. I later had an “aha” moment when I read an article about MBTI which noted that depending on his or her characteristics, a person might enthusiastically shoot out comments during freewheeling brainstorming sessions in meetings. Or he or she might say a few words during the meeting, then walk back to his or her office, think things over, and then send colleagues a ruminative email. I tend to fall into the latter category (anyone who reads my long comments on various blogs might have guessed that). But I can work either way. Indeed, it is useful for me to recognize people whose comfort zones lie not in exchanging emails but in hashing things out orally in meetings, so I can adapt to what works for them.

    Managers need to recognize the various types of preferred communications and ensure that everyone has a say, whether orally or in writing. Not everyone is attuned to such differences, however. You get double trouble when an organization (or forum) rewards groupthink and has a leader who shows annoyance at people who differ in style of communications from him or her. Obviously, the door to good communication ends up being shut. BTW, if you haven’t read it, I recommend Kathleen D. Ryan and Daniel K. Oestreich’s book, Driving Fear Out of the Workplace. I’ll have to look for the book by Robert I. Sutton for which you provided the image.

    And for a chilling, anecdotal account of the fall of Arthur Andersen, check out Barbara Toffler’s book, Final Accounting. Not surprisingly, you’ll see some bullies described there. Colin Boyd, a Canadian professor of management, provides an interesting review (somewhat long but worth reading, given that he once lectured on business ethics at Andersen) at


    As you might guess, I’m very interested in integrity and business ethics, given my background in working with the highest level government records at the National Archives.

  7. Dan tdaxp Says:

    The new Enterra website is quite nice, and deichmans is correct on the ability of Enterra to allow customers to see incompatibilities.

    I think the same issue of Business Week had a letter-to-the-editor criticizing a shot-gun approach to Six Sigma and standardization. The 80/20 rule implies that 80% of a company’s weight occurs in 20% of the organization. So a wise, nimble organization probably would want an Enterra-like solution for the bottom 20% to cut costs, while perhaps viewing that sort of product as a possible value-ad for the other 80%, depending on specific circumstances.

  8. MountainRunner Says:

    Mark, very good. You’re dead-on when you wrote “The emphasis shifts from finding new opportunities to not making mistakes”. This very shift toward “perfect” solutions and removing “unproductive” time ends up requiring more time and money (through employee cost/time at minimum) than if the wrong decision was executed, learned from, and re-executed. I know, this is one reason I left IT and went back to school.

  9. mark Says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thank you ! It would be very helpful if schools and universities did more explicit metacognitive teaching so that students might realize that different kinds of cognition ( in this case analytical-reductionist) are subject to diminishing returns.

    What would Six Sigma do to DARPA ? It would destroy it. DARPA is amazingly productive in the creative sense because it is willing to lavish resources “wastefully” investigating wild possibilities that often don’t pan out.

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