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The Elvis loving Six Sigma black-belt, 3M, KM and a pub in Wales!

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.

7 comments on “The Elvis loving Six Sigma black-belt, 3M, KM and a pub in Wales!

  1. Arshad (@arshads76)
    August 23, 2011

    Humorous story and interesting reading David. I guess as part of my companies staff development I was initially interested in Six Sigma training because of it’s relative kudos within the company and the fact that I could essentially enlist on some pretty expensive training for free to ultimately enhance my skill set.

    Of course being no expert on Six Sigma, I figured I’d turn to Wikipedia for a quick skinny on the area and came across this… “of 58 large companies that have announced Six Sigma programs, 91 percent have trailed the S&P 500 since” Granted you really ought to make up your own mind, based reasoned conclusion when deciding on new disciplines. However, rightly or wrongly that piece of evidence was enough to put me off the idea of pursuing it.

    • David Griffiths
      August 23, 2011

      Hi Arshad, and thanks for the contribution. It’s an interesting argument…there’s obviously a time and place for a ‘lean’ approach, but it has to be measured against the core competencies and strategic needs of the organisation. Too often there is a knee-jerk reaction to the economic environment, where short-term gains actually ‘kill’ the company in the long-term —- there has to be a considered balance.

  2. candicebarrow
    August 27, 2011

    Hi David,

    While i understand that Six Sigma is more focused on manufacturing and business processes and can impede knowledge management and innovation within organisations is it impossible for six sigma and KM initiatives to exist alonside each other within the same organisation? In my view and while this may be simplifying it KM is about getting the correct information to individuals within an organization so that they can use it for the good of the organization and themselves (using your definition) Couldn’t this still happen if six sigma is used within an organization?

    • David Griffiths
      August 27, 2011

      Hi Candice,

      Thanks for the question. One thing I would say is that this is not about KM per se; this, for me, is about innovation, adaptive capacity and decision-making capability – essential elements for any organisation transacting in the knowledge economy. The problem is perhaps how the organisation defines and locates knowledge (object Vs process; within Vs outside the person-human) I don’t think you can apply statistical (defect-centric quality/efficiency driven) modeling to innovation process that rely on people to activate information into knowledge – 3M is a good example of this (they have said that the ‘Post-it note’ would note have been invented if the SS approach had been active at the time). Six sigma focuses on efficiency processes, where knowledge is managed within the IC, RBV of the firm; how does this account for soft processes and the development of knowledge by and between people – 90%+ of Google’s valuation is based on intangibles, how does six sigma account for this? Also, as with the 3M example, what impact do lean processes have on innovation capability and capacity over the mid to long term? Do I think there is a place for a SS approach, yes. However, I would also say that it depends heavily on the knowledge needs/intensity of the firm.

      Lean processes are being used by many companies at the moment in response to the challenging economic environment, often by ‘turn-around’ consultants/experts, and, in these times, there is a recognised need to ‘rescue’ companies to protect jobs in the short-term. Even here though, I would say that that there are issues; for if the knowledge needs of the firm are not taken into account, and risk assessed, then what cost to the firm in decision-making capability, innovation capacity, reputation, customer satisfaction and longer term competitive advantage if core expertise is not recognised and protected? I’ve talked about this a lot over the past months and, ultimately, organisations are suffering due a failure to protect/capture expertise and acknowledge their knowledge needs – just my experience/opinion.

      Hope that answers your question…


  3. Ali Al-Dakoki
    August 29, 2011

    Hi Dave , Very interesting debate .
    From my humble experience, I found that the journey of successful lean six sigma project involves substantial amount of Knowledge discovery, capturing and retaining activities, which lead to innovative solutions. Looking at a process and its people who accumulate the tacit knowledge for know-how will lead to innovative solutions to problems and issues. In this perspective LSS professionals help organization draw logical maps to utilize that knowledge.
    I would define LSS methodologies as effective tools for managing knowledge in an organization based on specific issue or opportunity for improvement.
    Saying that, I think you are looking at the same object but from different angles.
    Hope that will help 

    • David Griffiths
      August 29, 2011

      Hi Ali and thank you for the comment. My question is whether SS ‘experts’ (black-belts) are actually acknowledging this when the implement LSS processes. In my experience, especially over the last eighteen months, I have yet to meet a LSS consultant who has conducted a knowledge-intensity driven risk assessment when recommending ‘right-sizing’ for organisations in the current economy. I agree with you that this is a matter of perspective, but I do not believe that tacit knowledge/innovation capacity can be framed within a rigid statistical model a la LSS. The 3M case, as well as other cases, such as Toyota, would seem to demonstrate the issue to be a very real one, but if there is a counter argument then, as someone who is open to opposing views, it needs to be given an airing – I’m just not seeing/experiencing it at this time.

      Cheers… D

  4. Pingback: Are you model-dependent? | Theknowledgecore's Blog

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