Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
This weekend I found myself in my local, a little pub in Wales, having a quiet beer with my wife – just one before settling in for a well-earned night of mindless television. A nice enough woman came into the bar wanting Elvis on the CD player. She was denied – I didn’t blame the barman, only track 4 (suspicious minds) could have been considered to be even remotely good. Friendly banter with this Elvis lover turned into a ‘getting to know you’ chat; big mistake! Then, in a little pub in a corner of Wales, a three hour debate, fueled by a few pints of beer, ‘raged’ (much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife), with polite civility I might add, on why six sigma (SS) isn’t good for knowledge intensive organisations. You see, she, the Elvis lover, was a SS black-belt, and me, well, as my wife will tell you, I’m just happy to find my belt when I’m getting dressed in the morning.
So, why am I so against SS in knowledge intensive organisations?
The right knowledge to the right person at the right time; how many times have we heard that mantra applied to KM? I have to put my hand up and plead guilty to applying this concept on more than one occasion when speaking to an organisation. Such a simple thing, but something that is also, perhaps, misguided. I changed my approach a little while ago to… Making knowledge available so that when people need it they can apply it for the better good of themselves and the organisation (this goes back to my belief that KM needs to align the needs of the individual, the needs of the organisation and the process that bind the two together)
But, why does the first approach resonate so deeply with senior/executive management teams? Because they are used to hearing it, albeit in a different context. It is the mantra of Six Sigma or Lean, or Lean Six Sigma, experts the world over; a programme driven by quality control and obsessive detail to process efficiency through statistical analysis.
Where does this leave a company that relies on innovation? I’ve blogged a lot on the drivers of the knowledge economy and the need for adaptive capacity; driven by innovation. Indicators suggest that Six Sigma is actually the death knell for innovation.
Indeed, the very factors that make Six Sigma effective in one context can make it ineffective in another. Traditionally, it uses rigorous statistical analysis to produce unambiguous data that help produce better quality, lower costs, and more efficiency. That all sounds great when you know what outcomes you’d like to control. But what about when there are few facts to go on—or you don’t even know the nature of the problem you’re trying to define? “New things look very bad on this scale,” says MITSloan School of Management professor Eric von Hippel, who has worked with 3M on innovation projects that he says “took a backseat” once Six Sigma settled in. “The more you hardwire a company on total quality management, [the more] it is going to hurt breakthrough innovation,” adds Vijay Govindarajan, a management professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “The mindset that is needed, the capabilities that are needed, the metrics that are needed, the whole culture that is needed for discontinuous innovation, are fundamentally different.”
There are good examples out there of companies that have become indoctrinated into the SS quasi quality religion, only to find that it impacted their core competencies in a way that they could not have predicted – because innovation just doesn’t conform to statistical models, such as those utilised within SS. The following is an excerpt from the now famous story of 3Ms SS journey.
For a long time, 3M had allowed researchers to spend years testing products. Consider, for example, the Post-it note. Its inventor, Art Fry, a 3M scientist who’s now retired, and others fiddled with the idea for several years before the product went into full production in 1980. Early during the Six Sigma effort, after a meeting at which technical employees were briefed on the new process, “we all came to the conclusion that there was no way in the world that anything like a Post-it note would ever emerge from this new system,” says Michael Mucci, who worked at 3M for 27 years before his dismissal in 2004. (Mucci has alleged in a class action that 3M engaged in age discrimination; the company says the claims are without merit.)
Innovation and creativity are non-linear processes, how can they be driven by a linear, statistical model designed to control wastage and limit defects? I’m not for one moment saying that SS doesn’t have its place, but it has to be used with weighted consideration for the strategic drivers of the organisation. Short term SS induced gains might look good on the balance sheet, but at what cost to the mid to long term, as 3M found out.
What was the reaction from 3M as they recovered from their SS nightmare, I mean, journey?
“We feel like we can dream again.” (Bob Anderson, a business director in 3M’s radio frequency identification division)
I was the winner in my pub debate – it helps being a local. The Elvis loving SS black-belt was gently cast into the night by the barman, who himself was a recent victim of SS induced efficiency savings within local government (ironically, in a service driven sector that is now suffering (or should I say, the customers are suffering) from the loss of expertise brought about by the SS driven redundancies). A small victory for me, the protector of people; the KM resources that keep innovation and adaptive capacity moving – at least that’s what I told myself on this particular evening (the beer bringing on self-professed ‘super-hero’ status)
This ‘victory’ has come at a price. I now can’t go out at night. You see, I’ve watched ‘American Werewolf in London‘ and, while this might be Wales, I know that the SS Elvis loving black belt is out there, waiting somewhere on the dark back-roads of Wales to get her revenge.