Editor’s note: Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration, author of Lear or Die: Using science to build a leading-edge learning organization and Batten executive-in-residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
Dell. 3M. Motorola. General Electric. They are just a few of the organizations that have embraced Lean and Six Sigma over the past couple of decades. And no wonder. There’s something so appealing, so elegant, about the concept that drives these systems: Take what we already know, replicate it, improve it and repeat. It’s so easy a robot could do it – and that’s precisely the problem.
Very soon the tasks that Lean and Six Sigma have helped operationalize will be handled primarily by robots and smart machines.
That’s a good thing. Nothing beats a robot in terms of efficiency and perfection. But here’s the real question: How good is your company at doing all the things robots can’t do well – such as innovate?
As you’ve no doubt heard, the only real competitive advantage these days is the ability to learn and innovate. That means your organization must be okay with risk – and the screw-ups, missteps and waste that inevitably accompany it. The problem, of course, is that an organization steeped in the lore of Lean and Six Sigma naturally views them as sins to stamp out.
So am I suggesting we abandon the quest for operational excellence? Well, no. We must allow Lean or Six Sigma or whatever operational excellence system we follow to coexist peacefully with a deep desire to learn and try new things, even when the outcome is unknown.
Yes, it’s a paradox. But it’s one that must be hardwired into the fabric of an organization through a learning culture, because learning is the fundamental process that underlies both operational excellence and innovation.
Lean and Six Sigma just need to happen in the context of a hybrid business model, one ...