Product Marty Cagan

How To Kill Innovation

Last week I ran into two different software technology companies (neither in Silicon Valley) that had just recently brought in Six Sigma consultants. This caught me by surprise because it¹s been a very long time since I heard of a technology company even considering this. I’m hoping this was an anomaly, but in the spirit of “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I thought it’s important to discuss quality-centric methodologies like Six Sigma.

In the manufacturing world especially, if your company is struggling with quality or cost issues, then Six Sigma can be very appropriate. It is based on a set of quality management techniques and practices that can significantly reduce costs and defect rates.

Unfortunately, many of those that advocate Six Sigma believe that the principles should be applied throughout the organization, for virtually any business process. But what can be good for removing defects in a manufacturing process can completely destroy the product discovery process and software development.

Please know that I am dead serious when I say this: for companies that depend on innovation, these well-intentioned but misguided people can destroy your company.

In our industry, we live and die by our ability to innovate. Yes, quality is important, but it’s only interesting to even discuss quality if you’ve come up with a product people want.

Do you remember the old Motorola, the company that used to be “driven by a passion to invent?” How about 3M, the company that was based on encouraging initiative and innovation among its employees? And GE, the company that really did used to “bring big ideas to life.” And Sun, at one point they were incredibly creative and relevant. Same with Intuit, a company that was founded on a commitment to delight customers.

What all these companies have in common is that they all used to be widely admired, consistent technology innovators. Until Six Sigma took over. Then their innovation virtually disappeared. It all became minor incremental refinements, and in our business, that’ll only take you so far.

Now of course the intent of Six Sigma was never to kill or stifle innovation, but the unintended negative consequences to an organization of trying to apply Six Sigma dogma beyond the processes it is appropriate for are so profoundly damaging that they dwarf the benefits, especially over time. Yes, you can save some costs in the short-run, but you’ll soon start to see the consequences in the top-line as significant new product introductions slow to a crawl, and customer reactions to your products disappoint.

Visit a technology product team in a Six Sigma company and you’ll find people that have had the creativity and initiative drained right out of them. It’s all about avoiding the bureaucracy and the pain associated with any deviation. And it’s no surprise that they’ve had a hard time retaining the creative people ­ the ones they need to invent their future successful products.

For tech companies, it’s just not about eliminating defects and inefficiencies. It’s about discovering and delivering products and services that customers love. Don’t fall into the trap of confusing building the product right, with building the right product.

If your goal is to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, then maybe Six Sigma is for you, but if your goal is to create winning products, you need to optimize your organization instead around product discovery and encouraging just the sort of creativity and initiative that enables people to think and act differently.

It’s not just Six Sigma consultants that can try to apply their techniques to areas that don’t make any sense. I¹ve also seen some overzealous Scrum advocates try to apply the process to areas that it wasn’t designed for and make a mess out of things as well. But honestly I¹ve never seen damage to a company’s ability to innovate as deep and lasting as what has happened to companies that try to implement Six Sigma from the top down.

So if you find one of these Six Sigma guys wandering the halls of your tech company, grab them by their black belt and toss them back where they came from.