Should the Era of Six Sigma End?

Should the Era of Six Sigma End?Five percent here, three percent there. I’m tired as hell of continuous improvement. Sure there’s a place for it, but it shouldn’t be the only type of work we do. But, unfortunately, that’s just what’s happened in manufacturing. To secure the balance sheet, the pendulum swung too far toward continuous improvement. Just look at what we’re writing about – the next low cost country, shorter lead times, how to be profitable where there’s no profit to be had. Those topics scream continuous improvement – take nickels and dimes out of processes to increase profits. But there’s a dark side to all this focus on continuous improvement. It has created a big problem: it has come at the expense of discontinuous improvement.

Continuous improvement is a philosophy of minimization with a focus on cost and waste reduction, while discontinuous improvement is a philosophy of maximization with a focus on creation of new markets through product innovation. As of late, we’ve minimized waste at the expense of invention and innovation. I propose we flip this on its head and maximize through discontinuous improvement at the expense of continuous improvement. That’s right; I said do less lean and Six Sigma.

But we must ask ourselves if we’re capable of doing discontinuous improvement. Remember, we ignored or dismantled our innovation engines over the last years. And what about our big thinkers, our creative thinkers, our innovators? Do they still work for us, or have they just stopped talking about big ideas? I urge you to answer that question because your next actions depend on it.

If your innovative thinkers are gone, go out and hire the best you can find ASAP. If you were fortunate enough to retain your big thinkers, congratulations. Now it’s time to get the band back together, but first you’ve got to do some reconnaissance to ferret them out of their hiding places. Once you find them, invite them to a nice lunch – the nicer the better. Don’t push too hard at lunch, just start to get reacquainted. In time you’ll get to talk about their ideas on new technologies and how to create new markets.

It will be difficult to get your company swing the pendulum away from continuous improvement, but you must try. Without discontinuous improvement your company will be destined to wrestle for nickels using lean and Six Sigma.

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Mike ShipulskiDr. Mike Shipulski (certfied TRIZ practioner) brings together the best of TRIZ, Axiomatic Design, Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (2006 DFMA Contributer of the Year), and lean to develop new products and technologies. His blog can be found at Shipulski On Design.

Mike Shipulski




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No Comments

  1. Mitch Ditkoff on June 2, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Ignore my previous link. Wrong one. Here’s the right one:

  2. George Rathbun on June 2, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Mike, I tend to disagree with your assertion. Even though more needs to be done to innovate, there is still plenty of lean to be done across the world… and more so if you are innovating.

    The Lean-Innovation cycle is what allows innovations to effectively leave the ‘laboratory’ and become market feasible. With truly disruptive innovations, delivery processes (ie: manufacturing) may require new knowhow and techniques. These will bring ample opportunity for improvement (continuous improvement). If this continuous improvement is not done and organizations wait to launch their innovations only after everything has been perfected… well, then they stand to be leaped by competitors.

    The more innovation there is the more continuous improvement there will be.

  3. Joe Marchese on June 2, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    I appreciate your perspective, Mike, and agree that a single-minded focus on optimization has come at the expense of innovation. You have great ideas on re-enabling the dreamers (or even those just permanently annoyed with the status quo), but we shouldn’t stay in the pendulum pattern forever. The best results are generated when we have both the innovators and optimizers collaborating to produce ‘wow’ products and services. If we’re going to transform our businesses, let’s apply all the lessons we’ve acquired along the way.

  4. David Mottershead on June 3, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    The Process Ninja has already posted an obituary to Lean and Six Sigma suggesting that they are already past their use by date. See

    There is already a groundswell of support for an emerging methodology called Outside In whose sole focus is on customers and delivering successful customer outcomes. The methods are used by some of this century’s most successful companies, such as Apple, Google and Virgin, with triple crown benefits of increased revenue, reduced cost and enhanced service, simultaneously. Improvements in excess of 30% have been achieved for organisations that have fully embraced the methods which puts the 3-5% continuous improvement efforts in perspective.

  5. Dr. Bob Grenier on June 5, 2010 at 9:16 am

    If “waste is cost without benefit,” why not eliminate it?

  6. Project Management Tools That Work (Bruce) on June 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    I worked at a Fortune 50 where they spent so much time looking for that next great innovation that they never got very good at doing the normal engineering that needed to be done everyday.

    My argument was that we needed engineering excellence (through that horrid incremental improvement) to keep us competitive with what products we did produce, until that next great product came along (they had many huge products). They are currently struggling to stay in the top 100.

    I love this rush from one extreme to the other. It has its benefits (kind of like the economy roaring up and down has its benefits) but I want my lights to stay on, my house to not fall down on my family, my car to not disassemble as I drive it. This kind of high efficiency comes from continuous improvement, in my observation.

    I’m the innovative one in the places I’ve worked. Yet I very much appreciated those folks who just come in to work, do a good and improving job at what they did yesterday, and then go home each day. I once commented that I need about 10% of my folks to be the innovators, and the other 90% to just do a good job. I think this kind of distribution (or maybe 20/80) is probably the right kind of balance.

  7. Gopi Kanta Nayak on April 4, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Dear Mike
    Your emphasis is well taken, but a little paranoid. It is never a case between Innovation or optimization of an existing process. In fact as a Sr Manager of a power plant company, I would rather opine both line of thoughts can go hand in hand. Sometimes, I think it may be a case of prioritisation.

    Even when one innovates and brings out a process we can use Lean and six sigma to bring in efficiency to have better competitiveness. It is also possible, that a particular six sigma project can utilise the tool of innovation like TRIZ.

    So why create artificial enmity between the two?

    Gopi Kanta Nayak

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