Six Sigma and more: Creativity

David SchwinnThe role of creativity in innovation is clear; David Schwinn addresses the importance of creativity in Six Sigma and improvement efforts. For creative minds to flourish, tools and structures must be part of a culture without fear of ridicule, failure, and rejection, as Deming points out.

I recently opened the summer 2012 edition of ASQ’s “Quality Management Forum” that focused on creativity and innovation. It was a thoughtful piece on creativity, quality, Six Sigma, innovation, and Lean. It prompted some thoughts about Six Sigma and some of the challenges you may be up to.

One of the articles noted that quality professionals are frequently thought of as compliance officers rather than creative thinkers. I doubt that is considered true of Six Sigma professionals, but you may be considered problem solvers and statisticians in your organization. Certainly, the process control and standardization part of quality and Six Sigma is usually not considered very creative, but even there, some creativity is required. Certainly the design and improvement portions of our work require creativity as do our organizations’ broader invention and reinvention efforts. It is fair to say that creativity and innovation are essential to the success of our organizations these days.

Another article in the Forum does a nice job of describing the difficulties associated with achieving those organizational characteristics. The focus of the article is on the need for a culture that supports creativity, but I’d like to add a couple of more considerations that might be helpful. Let’s consider:

  • Tools
  • Structure
  • Culture

As Six Sigma professionals, we have quite a bag of tools. We know how to brainstorm, use nominal group technique, mind mapping, deBono’s Six Thinking Hats®, and von Oech’s A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (New York: Harper Perennial, 1986) among other approaches.

We also know the value of structure. We know that it is helpful to bring together many people to help make the idea generation process more fruitful. We can congregate people face-to-face or virtually. We can use the Delphi Technique, Open Space, or other specific structures. We understand the value of asking folks who are outside the system to get involved to further enliven the process.

Finally, we know that culture may be the most difficult consideration to influence. Another article in the Forum talks about how fear stifles creativity. Paul Williams reviews the fears of:

  • Ridicule for being “crazy”
  • Being punished for challenging the organizational norms
  • Failure
  • Rejection
  • Having our ideas stolen

He doesn’t mention the fear of success. When we are successful, our management may begin to expect it and hold us to account. Many of these fears may be irrational, but psychology tells that fear and irrationality are interdependent feelings. All this talk about fear reminds us that Dr. Deming said that perhaps the most important and most difficult of his “14 Points” was the elimination of fear. If creativity is to thrive, our culture must be free of fear, but there is, of course, more to consider.

As leaders, we must encourage creativity by linking it to goals, incentives, language, metrics, training, and simply a belief that being creative is essential to our success. Now that we have the things we need to be creative under our belts, what should we create?

As I was starting my professional career, it seemed the thing that management most wanted to change was structure. New organization charts, new people in new positions and new roles and responsibilities seemed to be the keys to success. In many organizations, structural change is still the starting place for change. Among other things, Dr. Deming taught us to improve and create new processes. If we take a hard look at the “14 Points” we find that many of them are innovative. In fact, they are so much so that many of them are still not embraced by many companies. There are even more organizational elements that we can create. We can create new missions, visions, products, services, and infrastructure. We can even expand on Dr. Deming’s apparent focus on processes, by going beyond redesigning throughput processes, to redesigning decision-making and improvement processes. Another way to look at structure builds on the Interactive Design methodology invented by Dr. Russell Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi. They taught us that we can create or recreate anything that enhances our generation and distribution of wealth, values, knowledge, beauty, and power. As an example of some of the things that can be created, let’s consider the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project that intended, among other things, to redesign the county of Jackson, Michigan.

In Jackson, new buildings and a new riverfront were built, new organizations and collaborative efforts were created, and new fund raising processes were explored among other things. For some, even the culture changed from waiting for the leader to being the leader. Creativity and innovation are important parts of Six Sigma and essential parts of our organizational survival.

It’s clear that creativity is critical to everyone in the organization.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions. You can reach me by commenting below.