Six Sigma Is Draining Employees’ Creativity
“Now I have to tell you something, and I mean this in the best and most inoffensive way possible: I don’t believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that ‘it’s all about the process,’ I see that as a bad sign … The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.”
—Elon Musk, founder of Space-X and Tesla Motors
If you have a job at any sizable company there is a good chance you’ve been forced to endure Six Sigma training, or at least some watered-down derivative. Your instructor may have reminded you, as mine did, of a newly converted religious fanatic proselytizing his faith. Imagine a cross between a Scientologist and a Jehovah’s Witness, tastefully attired in business casual.
According to an official account, Six Sigma is an organized and systematic method for strategic process improvement, plus new product and service development, that relies on statistical methods and the scientific method to make dramatic reductions in customer-defined defect rates.
Don’t worry about trying to understand what that even means: it turns out that not even Ultimate Lean-Master Six Sigma Black Belts know how to translate that description. Six Sigma is neither statistical nor scientific. You can quite easily get through Six Sigma training by pretending to know what it means.
So let’s just pretend.
Supposed Truth about Six Sigma
A paper on Six Sigma theory by R. G. Schroeder in the Journal of Operations Management from 2008 identifies several definitions: Six Sigma is “a high-performance, data-driven approach to analyzing the root causes of business problems and solving them.”
Also it’s a “business process that allows companies to drastically improve their bottom line by designing and monitoring every business activity in ways that minimize waste and resources while increasing customer satisfaction”; also it’s “a disciplined and statistically based approach for improving product and process quality”; also it’s “a management strategy that requires culture change in the organization.”
The single most important goal of the Six Sigma is to reduce variation in organizational processes by using disease vectors to spread throughout the company. These vectors are improvement specialists, a structured method, and performance metrics.
This is similar to what the underlying disease in epilepsy does to neurons. During a seizure, the variations in the neurons are reduced. Reducing variation in the brain is devastating.
Applied to an entire company, the Six Sigma process is analogous to an organizational epileptic seizure.
Capitalist corporations must execute a strange balancing act between two poles on a spectrum that are paradoxical. On the one hand, they must work to the shareholders’ immediate benefit—hence Six Sigma. On the other hand, they need ideas for innovative products. Both these contradictory elements are required for the elusive “competitive advantage.”
The Six Sigma process is analogous to an organizational epileptic seizure
The Human Brain, Variety and Creativity
The only system we know of in the universe that can be innovative is the human brain. But the brain seems to need things like freedom, long periods of idleness, positive emotions, low stress, randomness, noise, and a group of friends with tea in the garden to be creative. The truth is that we can’t have it both ways. Until we figure out how to give robots a “creative mode,” humans are going to be the only source of innovation for the foreseeable future.
The human brain actually seeks out and thrives on its own variation. With each new experience we have, our brain is irreversibly changed. These changes become more profound and stable if we rest between new experiences. This allows our brain to consolidate what it has absorbed and integrate it into our own sense of self, therefore making meaning out of experience.
The process is different for each experience and different for each person. Neuroscience is discovering that a crucial part of this process is to allow the brain’s default mode network time to be active. A resting brain is necessary for this to happen.
In my experience, the one thing employees complain the most about at large organizations is all the “process.” Every internal employee survey I have seen shows that people approve of “process” the least, and in fact feel very negatively about it. If you want a sure fire way to reduce morale, induce widespread cynicism, stop innovating, and turn people into mindless bureaucrats why not give Six Sigma or any related process improvement fad a try.
Perhaps the most mind blowing thing about these processes is that all the independent research (of which there is little) on whether or not they actually improve the bottom line is equivocal at best.
In other words, Six Sigma ruins your day, and it doesn’t even work.
(Excerpted from Autopilot, out now from OR Books)
Photo by Pierre