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Does Lean Six Sigma Truly Stifle Creativity?

Does Lean Six Sigma Truly Stifle Creativity?

By Anne Foley, PMP, MBB, CSSBB
Director of Lean Six Sigma, IIL

I just finished reading an article about a well-known company that has decided to stop training employees on the concepts, tools and techniques of Lean Six Sigma. I secretly hoped that this decision was made by one of our competitors… but no such luck. The reason given for this move was that the executives were concerned that it was stifling creativity in the company. They were worried that it might generate an environment of analysis paralysis instead of one where employees create. Really? That’s a head scratcher for me and I’ll tell you why.

I first learned about process management, process improvement and things like y=f(x) in the 1980’s when working for a supplier to Motorola. They wanted all suppliers to report key performance metrics to them in something called DPMO (Defects per Million Opportunities) and Sigma. We agreed without clearly understanding what that meant. They were a lucrative customer so we were not about to say no.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I can sincerely tell you that what I’ve since learned as a result of that request, has completely transformed my thoughts about problem solving, decision making, leading others, and even creatively generating solutions.  It is a mindset and skillset that I consider “priceless” and I’m grateful to all the companies who have helped me learn it.

I don’t just leave this mindset at the office; it has also helped me to solve numerous problems in other parts of my life.  Armed with confidence on how to problem solve, I think I’m more creative than ever.  I have frequently used “state of the art” creativity techniques like Reverse Thinking, Random Word, Morphological Box and others, thanks to Lean Six Sigma.  We have never suffered from analysis paralysis and it has taught me that it’s a lot faster and cheaper to do it right, than to do it over.  I believe that Lean Six Sigma is much more than data and analysis. The mindset provides structure to common sense problem solving. There is no problem too big or too small for this thought process. Let me give you a simple example.

A friend of mine was telling me about an incident at one of his company meetings.  He said that a woman was walking out of the room and tripped over the laptop bag of another colleague and hit her head on the edge of the table on her way to the floor.  There was lots of blood and an ambulance was called.  Thankfully, she is fine with the help of a dozen stiches to her chin.  My friend proceeded to tell me that this was the third time someone had tripped in their meeting room, and it was the worst one so far.  That doesn’t surprise me.  I have learned that the first time a problem occurs is rarely the worst.  It’s those that we allow to repeat that cause the most damage.

C.S. Lewis once said that “sometimes we need to be reminded, more than we need to be instructed.”  So many things I’ve learned from my Lean Six Sigma training remind me that good problem solving is a process.  The first thing to do is “stop the bleeding.”  That is literal in this example, but figurative in most other problems.   Notice that I did not say figure out who to blame – IE:  it’s her fault for wearing heals, or it’s his fault for buying a bag with a long handle, or it’s Alexander Graham Bell’s fault for inventing something that a large portion of the population now stares at while walking.  While this is the first step in problem solving, it should never be the last step.

Step two is to determine the potential frequency of this problem.  Is this likely to repeat or something very unusual?   Step three is to determine the root cause(s) and step four is to generate creative solutions that are sustainable.  My recommendation for this situation is based on something that Lean teaches called Poka-Yoke. The party line of Poka-Yoke is that while it is good to tell people not to make mistakes, it is smart to make it difficult if not impossible to make mistakes.  You can react to this problem by telling everyone to watch where they are walking so they don’t trip…or spend a couple dollars and buy cord covers and have everyone move laptop bags to the walls of the room so the likelihood of someone tripping is remote.  Prevention is the key.

Lean Six Sigma has taught me that most work problems are solvable. Sure, it starts with raising the level of awareness through data and analysis, but that’s not where it ends.  It takes the emotion out of problem solving.  It takes the trial and error out of problem solving. And finally, it takes the blame game out of problem solving.  We are all human and make mistakes so it’s faster and cheaper to lower the margin of error than expect workers to perform flawlessly.  The bottom line is … Lean Six Sigma has taught tens of thousands of people how to create and deliver products and services, effectively and efficiently.  For yours truly, it taught me that problem solving is a process designed to identify root cause factors and creatively generate solutions.  Anyone else think our world could use more, not less of that knowledge?

Anne F. FoleyAnne F. Foley, PMP, MBB, CSSBB has been teaching Lean Six Sigma (DMAIC) and Project Management for eighteen years.  Anne has served as the Director of Lean Six Sigma at IIL for the past thirteen years. She is also the author of The Passages to Peace (a novel) and a frequent contributor to Project Management, Lean Six Sigma and other various publications.  Anne has a Bachelors of Science degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Kansas State University.

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