I’ll Have Some Innovation Please, but Hold the Kaizen

Predictability can be a good thing or a bad thing. A friend of mine named John Cass is a guru in the areas of PR and corporate blogging. John pushed my buttons by pointing me at an article by Knowledge@Wharton from the Wharton School of Business. He knew it would raise bristles and cause me to blog.
The article is titled TQM, ISO 9000, Six Sigma: Do Process Management Programs Discourage Innovation? Ah, another one of those “creativity versus process” articles. My answer to this question, doing my best Ted Stevens impersonation, is no.
Professor Mary J. Benner calls for a more measured application of process management tools. Her research found that process management limits innovation. “…the risk is that you misapply these programs, in particular in areas where people are supposed to be innovative,” and “brand new technologies to produce products that don’t exist are difficult to measure. This kind of innovation may be crowded out when you focus too much on processes you can measure.” Don’t focus too much on processes you can measure. I’m all for moderation. How much is too much focus? Any, according to the article.
Professor Benner says “Our message is this: Companies that have process management in one area must realize that it can bleed into other areas of the company, and you must prevent that from happening. Use these approaches where they make sense — and deliberately do not have them in areas that are focused on innovation.”
To process people, them are fightin’ words.
In calling for balance, the authors say that we should keep the process people and the innovation people under one roof but separated. In other words TQM, Six Sigma, and ISO are all good, but don’t apply them to your innovation processes. Following their “ambidextrous approach” you would have the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
Where have we heard this before? About 100 years ago craftsmen building automobiles in barns probably said the same thing to Henry Ford as he was ushering in modern manufacturing with his assembly lines featuring flow, synchronization, and economy of motion. And we still hear this today.
The professors cite research in the drop in innovation in firms that pursued ISO certification in several industries. It seems to me that the rather obvious conclusion is that they were too busy pursuing ISO to pursue innovation. It’s more than once that I’ve walked out of an information session with a prospective client shaking my head because they were “too busy” with ISO certification or ERP implementation to introduce Lean and kaizen to their organization right now.
Kaizen is noticeably absent. Either the authors were not aware of kaizen or that they are aware of the fact that kaizen, a much less rigorous process than TQM, ISO of six sigma which in our experience would do far less to stifle innovation and would not support their argument. Uninvited, I come to the defense of the TQM, ISO and six sigma schools of continuous improvement.
Performance management is about measuring what you do and improving what you measure. This can be difficult for innovative and creative processes.
There’s a useful tool for evaluating the maturity of processes that comes from the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute called the Capability Maturity Model. This one was designed for software development processes but they should be familiar to anyone who has done a Lean process assessment. These concepts fit well to manufacturing, design engineering, or innovation.
To paraphrase into Lean lingo, the five levels are:
Level 1: Process is undefined. “Heroic effort”
Level 2: Process is defined but not documented. “Tribal knowledge”
Level 3: Process is defined and documented. “Standardized”
Level 4: Process is controlled. “Predictable”
Level 5: Process is continuously improved. “High performance”
Just today I visited with a COO of a client of ours. They are a high-end design engineering firm. As part of a discussion of their needs for Lean in transactional and program management areas, we discussed their level of process maturity. “We’re at level 2” he told me.
A high performance organization needs to be continuously improving based on controlled and predictable documented standards. Processes don’t have to be minutely detailed procedures for “how to innovate” but they must be beyond levels 1 and 2. Be honest and do a quick self-evaluation of your innovation processes based on these five categories.
Software development and other types of innovation areas are notorious for producing wonderful new products behind schedule and over budget. These are typically some of the smartest people trying as hard as they can. So why is the performance so poor? Toyota tells us to always “blame the process, not the person”. How do you do this if you don’t have a process?
In defense of the authors, even Drucker himself argued that the performance of knowledge workers should not be managed in the same way as those who turn wrenches. Every generation has said “Mankind will never…” and they have been proven wrong in the subsequent generations when more precise or powerful tools and new knowledge become available and make “never” into “now”..
Kaizen is all about defining, stabilizing, documenting and improving processes to the degree that they make things better and improve profitability. Innovation is not exempt.

1 Comment

  1. Tim Reid

    December 24, 2005 - 3:00 am

    Innovation, whatever its definition, its face and so on, is a massively under-utilised strategy for businesses looking to create a strong point of difference. I’m personally frustrated by the amount (read majority) of businesses going about everyday life as if they were the only ones in the market …Like they ARE they market! I’d like to encourage anyone out there who is responsible for the success of a business (or not-for-profit) to take a risk in the coming new year and attempt doing a few things differently. Take a look at the rules in which your category operates and flip them on their head…Then see what fall;s to the gorund in terms of practical, useable ideas. Do this and you’re guaranteed of commencing the rewarding journey of telling your own story, as opposed to becoming another ‘me too’ organisation who is satisfied with just keeping up. Go for broke…You might surprise yourself! If you’re looking for inspiration or information on how to start this rewarding journey, then please vist me at my website… http://www.theideasguy.com.au . Cheers for now…TIM The Ideas Guy.