I recently picked up the summer 2012 edition of the American Society for Quality's (ASQ) Quality Management Forum, which focused on creativity and innovation. Tracy Owens started off the discussion with his article, “Don’t Ask Him, He’s Not Creative.”
It was a thoughtful piece about creativity, quality, Six Sigma, innovation, and lean, and it prompted some thoughts about Six Sigma and the inherent challenges of being a quality professional.
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 are 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, “Restoring Creativity by Involving People” by Peter Merrill, did a nice job describing the difficulties associated with achieving those organizational characteristics. The article focused on the need for a culture that supports creativity, but I’d like to add a couple more points that might be helpful. Let’s consider tools, structure, and culture.
As Six Sigma professionals, we have quite a bag of tools. We know how to brainstorm, use the nominal group technique, and mind mapping; and we have Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats (Back Bay Books, 1999), and Roger von Oech’s A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1986), among other approaches.
We also know the value of structure. We know that it is helpful to bring together many people to make the idea-generation process more fruitful. We can congregate people face-to-face or virtually. We can use the Delphi Technique, Open Space Technology, 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, “Mind the Innovation Execution Gap,” Paul R. Williams talks about how fear stifles creativity. Williams reviews the fears of:
• Ridicule for being “crazy”
• Being punished for challenging the organizational norms
• 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 us that fear and irrationality are interdependent feelings. All this talk about fear reminds us of what W. Edwards Deming said: That perhaps the most important and most difficult of the 14 Points for Management is 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, 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, Deming taught us to improve and create new processes. If we take a hard look at the 14 Points, we find that many of the points 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 such as new missions, visions, products, services, and infrastructure. We can even expand on 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 Systems Design methodology invented by Russell Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi. They taught us that we can create or re-create anything that enhances our generation and distribution of wealth, values, knowledge, beauty, and power.
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.