Process Improvement: When More Is Less

Ann All

Is there such a thing as too much process improvement?


Yes, says consultant David Taber. While process improvement efforts like Six Sigma tend to work well for established products, helping companies ensure that high quality standards are met, they aren't that helpful -- and in fact may be harmful -- when companies are trying to develop new and innovative products.


Calling it a "bitter irony" in a piece on SandHill.com, Taber says "the longer and more detailed the product specification, the more likely a truly innovative product is to fail."


A user-centric approach to product development, complemented by technology, is preferable to methodologies like Six Sigma in such cases, says Taber. Using technology, for instance, makes it possible to engage customers in a dialogue through Web-based communities of interest.


In an interview with IT Business Edge, the EVP of a company called QualPro opines that using Six Sigma can lead to a sort of tunnel vision. "You've optimized one process, but you don't have the ability to foresee what might happen down the line, how it will impact other processes," says the exec.


He also believes that Six Sigma can be quite costly, largely because it involves pulling employees away from their jobs for weeks of training. Not only that, he says, but Six Sigma errs by making a single"expert" accountable for a project's success or failure.

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Jun 26, 2007 4:59 PM Jay Arthur Jay Arthur  says:
Most companies try to implement wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling Six Sigma, which is an expensive mistake. It invokes the dark side of the 80/20 rule: 80% of the effort only produces 20% of the benefit. In my experience 4% of the business causes over 50% of the delay, defects and deviation that devour profits. From an operational viewpoint, Lean Six Sigma is great for finding and fixing these issues.Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) helps create a high quality (4.5 Sigma) delivery system for innovations, but it doesn't help with the creative spark. The focus on Six Sigma sometimes causes companies to lose focus on creating new and innovative products.Business have to do both: innovate and improve. And they have to keep doing it forever. Lean Six Sigma is great for improvement, but it won't help you come up with the next big idea. Reply
Jun 29, 2007 12:36 PM Kannan.M.S. Kannan.M.S.  says:
I cant agree or add more to the perfect depictions of the author. The fact process optimization technoques,the 80 20 rule & the DFSS have a narrower tunnel as compared to interactivewith technology developments & overall processes bring in the right product with the user interaction impacting finesss of product at every stage is what the ultimate result one expects at the outcome of any produc life cycle.Neverthless this has limitationtoo to interactions one follows in schedule,taking them into the useful tips & implementation of such innovations into practice.But still this is quite superior approach than a single tuned tunnel approach on process orientation alone to produce the result that takes unduly lonng & even benefits alittle while involvement & innovative Technology can make the difference to produce the Quantum leap Reply
Jul 3, 2007 8:36 AM Didrik Thede Didrik Thede  says:
Process Improvement: When More Is Less - This is true for any process methodology which is not self-correcting. Included are any based on ideologies that claim to be applicable to every business process situation; those that claim to be "the best;" those that seek linear, enterprise-wide improvements (10% of the effort gets 10% results,..., 80% effort gets 80% results ...); those which are not evolving to look at an ever-broader "business range of motion;" and those which are not reflexive -- that is, those which do not call into question their own assumptions and therefore cannot or will not take themselves as their own object of investigation. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 9:39 AM Steve F. Steve F.  says:
Like any other tool, Six Sigma is effective in the right hands. It's just one more tool in the company toolbox, though. The idea that companies can overrely -- or underrely -- on Six Sigma is continually revisited in any worthwhile Six Sigma training.The idea that Six Sigma "can lead to tunnel vision" is slightly misplaced, in my opinion. People have tunnel vision before they get involved with Six Sigma or any other concept. It's people's tendencies to embrace or reject tools and technologies -- their learned biases -- that color the usability and applicability of any tool to the task at hand. It is not in our nature, once we get past childhood, to put aside our preconceptions when looking at anything.Six Sigma is neither a "cure for cancer" nor a tool from the devil's workshop. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 9:50 AM Jim Ericson Jim Ericson  says:
I don't know that most companies try to implement Six Sigma wall to wall, but I agree that this would be an expensive mistake. I got a good enough dose of that working at GE subsidiary NBC. But I think tying process improvement to innovation is a red herring, or at least being presented by people who have gotten too tangled in various fads. Henry Ford would tell you that innovation was around before, during and since process methodologies came to light, that innovation is not dependant on them but helped by steady and creative rather than dogmatic continuous improvement. The devil's advocate in me would say that 80 percent of a product's cost is locked in during R&D - and it is. But you don't fixate on your car's color while trying to win the Indy 500. You'd agree that this would be easier and in younger, smaller and less rigid organizations, which proves the merit of the process quest. But you'd hope that process owners would be among the better thinkers in organizations and have a shred of inovation in their blood as well. Thankfully, I know a few people like this. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 10:23 AM Ron Meyer Ron Meyer  says:
It is quite obvious David Taber and the QualPro EVP have little or no practical experience with Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma. Most methodologies for process improvement have a common "as-is" and "to-be" process analysi focus to re-design existing processes for improvement. Design for Six Sigma, assuming it is used for product design, provides a "Voice of the Customer" focus. It does not exclude "user-centered" design approaches, it enncourages them! The innovation is focused on what the customer values with respect to the product or service being designed. In addition, it provides a framework for the 80/20 rule. What 20% of the requirements provide 80% of the real and perceived value that the customer is willing to pay for! Articles like this one create "non-value added noise" from people who really do not understand both the tools and the technology in the practical use of the methodologies! Reply
Jul 3, 2007 10:54 AM Tony Mayor Tony Mayor  says:
A few simple questions: 1) How many projects are driven by the customers' needs? 2) How many projects are fact and data driven and present excellent problem traceability? 3) How many projects are based on someone's opinion of what the solution should be? 4) How often are there projects where team participants have a solid, common understanding of the task at hand--and suboptimization is minimized? If your answer to number 1, 2 and/or is 'one' or 'more' and 'often' for question number 4, do not discard Lean Sigma.As for stifling innovative thinking...it is simple, allow for it, make it a part of the Lean Sigma culture. It may very well be that such answers and 'epiphanies' only comes through a methodology such as Lean Sigma. Oh, and of course, do not forget that recommendations can be made. Just because something cannot be done within the life span of a Lean Sigma project, it does not mean it gets discarded. Think about it--the Lean Sigma project business case is most likely all an executive will need to understand the merits of the innovation. Remember, within a short period of time you can improve, be creative, innovate and recommend. Lean Sigma puts the sanity back into what is often a very confusing environment. Last but not least, how many of you are begging to see some closure and experience the fruit of your labor sooner rather than later? Reply
Jul 3, 2007 11:08 AM Robert B. Robert B.  says:
Six Sigma or Lean or Lean Sigma - all great methodologies to apply to operational or business processes for problem resolution. Many companies have seen actual bottom line results from adopting these methodologies. It has not been reported (I know there are claims) the adoption process improvement methodology has sparked innovation; this is especially seen with Six Sigma. Lean is a little different because of the fundamental principles it builds from and still has not sparked innovated thinking. At the end of the day these methodologies or process for process improvement are exactly that used for process improvement. There are a large number of Six Sigma experts which will say, What about DFSS! Still this is constrained process which does not promote innovation.The issue comes when organizational leadership with historical strong process improvement methodologies (be it Six Sigma, TQM, LeanSigma) allow these methodologies to drive innovation activities. The preferred approach is to utilize the process improvement tools to promote the innovation process, not dictate. Another approach is the use the methodologies to gage the product innovation for manufacturability through using Lean and Six Sigma. For example, the VOC tool is excellent gage to utilize to either spark thought or determine if the innovation product is heading in the right direction. Process mapping is another tool which can be used along side the innovation process. For the comment from the QualPro exec, I disagree. If done correctly the combination of Lean (evaluation of the Value Stream) and Six Sigma (analysis of variation and quality development) would help the issue of sub-optimizing processes. The reason for sub-optimizing stems from poor change management approach and communication plan. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 11:27 AM Dr. Bruce McKinnon Dr. Bruce McKinnon  says:
All Process Improvement tools have pros and cons. However, understanding what you are trying to achieve is paramount in putting together an organization's process improvement strategy. It's important to bring in someone from outside the organization to look at your existing process (end-to-end). If you have been working with your company's process for some time, you get used to it and don't notice where things may be going wrong. It's sort of like living with an alcoholic. After a while, it seems normal to you until someone has the guts to remind you that it's not. The same applies to process improvement. If you haven't seen any better process, you may believe that yours is the the best. Having someone objective come in and look at your process can not only point out potential problems but also save the organizational both time and money by not continuing to go down the wrong path. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 11:48 AM Ed Johnson Ed Johnson  says:
The idea that process improvement equals "helping companies ensure that high quality standards are met" is one that confuses and lumps together quality assurance (QA) and quality improvement (QI).QA amounts to a prescription for maintaining status quo as embodied in "standards," practices, or culture ("We've always done it this way.") Blind obedience to a QA way of thinking is what stifles, even prevents, innovation.QI, on the other hand, is fully open to innovation. It is unfettered from "standards" so that, upon hearing and understanding the both the "Voice of the Customer" and the "Voice of the Process," opportunities for improved and/or new products and services may emerge. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 12:10 PM Don Zook Don Zook  says:
The successful person will have more than one toolset available for new product innovation as well as process improvement. The adage that when the only tool you have is a hammer, then every solution is a nail fits this discussion very well.In addition to Six Sigma and Lean Sigma there are Project Management, Business Analysis, Business Process Re-engineering just to name a few of many available tools. Each has it's strong points and limitations. None does all things for all people for all situations at all times.My ineterpretation of the article was that some people only have on tool and try use it in situations where there are better tools available, or where a combination of tools will give much better results. That I believe is very true.Forget the "My tool is better than your tool" mentality and look at what tool will best produce the required results. People with hammers can learn to also use screwdrivers. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 6:07 PM Dr. Phyllis Thompson Dr. Phyllis Thompson  says:
Don Zook has it right. When I started working some years ago, the emphasis was on "systems and task analysis." Other cutely named strategies (good for marketing and for differentiating the designer from competitive companies) complemented and extended these approaches to figuring out what is going right and wrong, and how to demonstrate and measure that a problem has been fixed (emphasis on measurably, by the way, since without metrics you can't prove change has occured). Over time we have been inundated with the menu of (quite literally) thought-provoking tools . . .and more (e.g., remember, or like others, have you forgotten Management by Objectives?). . .that Zook enumerates. The problem arises when folks check their analytical skills and common sense (assuming they have both) at the door and think a tool will serve as the holy grail, showing them the way to "the solution." What they forget is that they, not the tool, hold the answer. Entrepreneurs are different than "bureaucrats" and change agents typically fall into the first category. Yes, entrepreneurs have steps they go through but they are more intuitive and less structured. Tthat may explain why the "creative employee" chaffs at lenghty meetings, structure that forces conformance over individuality.Tools are helpful indeed, but just as you can bang in a nail with a hammer, a board, a brick and any number of other devices, so too can you analyze performance and improve it using many different strategies. nd none of those strategies will be successfully applied if those applying them lack the requisite ability to understand information, weigh options, make informad decisions, etc. Reply
Jul 3, 2007 7:07 PM Teresa Shull Teresa Shull  says:
Process Improvement: When More Is Less - This is true for any process methodology, i.e., CMMI, ITIL, etc. When the process becomes more important than the business, it's a problem. Reply
Jul 10, 2007 5:47 PM Jim Love Jim Love  says:
While we liberally borrow from Six Sigma, our major focus is Lean and it's philosophy that "anything that does not add value to the customer is waste" is absolutely the right message for entrepreneurial companies. Other tools like the 5S's and concepts like continuous flow are also totally in synch with what entrepreneurs need to focus on. The problem is not that process improvement does not add to innovation, but that what so many companies are doing is simply going through the motions, following the latest fad or looking for some technological saviour. And while their larger competitors are locked in to what amounts to "tweaking" their legacy processes, the "leantrepreneur" is busy building a competitive advantage in the one place that his/her competitors cannot easily follow. Reply
Aug 1, 2007 5:51 PM Graham B Graham B  says:
Isn't it self-evident that a) conventional Process Improvement methods work best for short-cycle processes that are repeated many times and very similar each time (which includes being performed by the same number of people each time)?b) long-cycle processes that are infrequent, highly variable and performed by teams of varying sizes (such as much product and software development) require more agile and customer-engaging approaches? Reply

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