Sunday, September 7, 2014

Efficiency or Innovation – a trade off?

Although Six Sigma has been around for a while, it still seems to be a popular strategy to decrease variability. However, I still question the tradeoffs that come from adhering rigidly to six sigma and lean concepts, as they leave very little room for error, can be perceived as having needlessly complex processes or the marginal pay-off in improvement may be small. I feel like this scene from “That 70s Show” captures the two latter points quite well:

Granted, most of the time reducing variance is a good thing - it cuts costs and keeps products to specification. However, many improvements or discoveries happen by chance or embracing the difference in variance – just think of Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin from his cross-contaminated petri dish (Drucker).

Others seem to agree.

For example, Askenas points out that six sigma can fail to challenge basic assumptions and create a surplus of unnecessary work and may encourage thinking “inside the box” rather than outside of it. Similarly, Smith’s article “Is Six Sigma Killing Your Company's Future?” argues that companies’ sole focus on reducing variance is antithetical to innovation that - in the long run - can bolster longevity. He likens six sigma to Neospora, which have thrived through reducing variance, but with one big caveat – they have not evolved as the world around them has changed. In simple terms there is a point where the cost of reducing variance exceeds its benefit.

Even with their criticisms, neither Askenas nor Smith want to discontinue use of six sigma strategies, as it is clear that such concepts are necessary. Therefore, the question remains: how do we pinpoint where this sweet spot between reducing variance and allowing for error in order achieve innovation is?


Askenas, Ron. "Why Continuous Improvement May Need To Be Discontinued." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 13 July 1924. Web. 8 Sept. 2014. <>.

Drucker, Ernest. "Dirty shots in the dark."Times Higher Education. N.p., 15 Mar. 2002. Web. 8 Sept. 2014. <>.

Smith, Rick . "Is Six Sigma Killing Your Company's Future?." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 11 June 2014. Web. 8 Sept. 2014. <>.

Youtube video:

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