Lean Six Sigma and Innovation

“Innovation is anything but business as usual” – Anonymous


Innovation can be broken down into two categories:

1) Evolutionary

2) Revolutionary

Evolutionary innovation is applying existing solutions to existing problems ad revolutionary innovation is coming up with a new solution to a challenge. Evolutionary innovation is building a faster horse buggy and revolutionary innovation is building the model T. Both types are necessary if you are in an industry where innovation needed but how does Lean and Six Sigma play into innovating at a company? 

The Dilemma

Lean Six Sigma is at best an evolutionary innovation of your processes.  It is taking an existing solution and applying it to your organization.  This is a good thing and is very useful to many companies.  However without any revolutionary innovation you see marginal returns and eventually you don’t get much from your Lean Six Sigma efforts causing the leaders to scratch their heads and ask “what can we do now?”  Don’t feel bad if you are in this situation because it’s a trap you fall into because of your brain.  Critical thinking tasks like Lean Six Sigma tend to activate centers in the brain that are more analytical.  For revolutionary innovation we need more insight which is required which is completely different part of the brain.  If you are constantly operating in the Lean Six Sigma portion of the brain then it’s going to be very difficult for you to switch gears and focus on revolutionary innovation.  

A Solution

If you are seeing marginal returns in your Lean Six Sigma effort and need more innovation to get to a new level of performance there are a few things you can do. 

  1. Shift thinking from analytical to insightful type activities
  2. Practice the new behaviors
  3. Integrate the new behaviors with your existing Lean Six Sigma Effort

Shift Thinking

To engage the parts of your brain that make you more insightful, open, and creative there has be a shift in how the culture behaves. 

  • Use positive language – Positive language and thinking positive and big picture stimulate the centers of the brain that stimulate insightfulness and creativity.
  • Create learning spaces – Innovation of all kinds requires a space to learn and grow as well as make mistakes.  Creating a safe space to experiment is important.
  • Converge and Diverge – Much of the type of thought that happens to “open” you to insight is divergent thinking, you also want to implement some balance with the convergent thinking (i.e. coming up with action plans for how to implement your ideas).

Practice New Behaviors

Honing insightfulness and creativity are like lifting weights.  If you do it once in a while you don’t really change anything.  So be sure to practice the new behaviors and ways of thinking and try to integrate it into your daily work.

  • Use more positive language and creative problem solving daily meetings
  • Coach and develop people vs. just holding them accountable
  • Develop people as they want to be developed

Integrate with your Existing Lean Six Sigma Effort

You want to build off of what you have so do not discard your Lean Six Sigma Effort.

  • Integrate tools like Appreciative Inquiry with your Lean Six Sigma practice
  • Use Lean Six Sigma to help improve revolutionary innovations that you create
  • Understand the limitations of Lean Six Sigma and when to apply it and when not to apply.

References and more reading:

Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders

HBR article on Evolutionary vs Revolutionary innovation

Strengths based Lean Six Sigma

Designing Growth

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