How to Combine Innovation with Lean and Six Sigma

Innovation never takes place in a vacuum cut off from other initiatives to improve performance. Doug Collins takes a look at how to team up with people in the Lean and Six Sigma processes.

Watching Highlander makes me melancholy. In the movie we find a group of engaging, mostly benevolent antediluvians in our midst, enriching our lives with historical yarns, court manners, and swordplay. And yet, there can be only one winner. The rules conspire to deprive us of characters who add a welcome patina to the brassiness of our modern world.

I sense that the people who sponsor innovation initiatives within their organizations experience the same feeling at times. They work for an eternity to develop a program that delivers value—and yet, have many of their peers competing for attention and resources.

Walking down the hall you find someone focused on a new customer satisfaction drive. Visiting headquarters for the quarterly review you meet a group forming a tiger team to improve product quality. At lunch you discover your favorite conference room has morphed into a war room for gathering competitive intelligence. The enterprise comes to resemble the Highland Games.

Would an initiative bake-off governed by Highlander rules bring blessed relief? Please, let it be so.

Recasting the question from “Can there be only one winner?” to “What happens when we introduce collaborative innovation across the board?”, however, opens the door to a number of possibilities.

Consider, for example, the practice of lean. A growing number of organizations are embracing lean principles. The lean practitioner is responsible for satisfying demand in ever more productive ways by reducing waste along the value chain. Organizations that succeed with lean realize compelling economic benefits and competitive advantage. Reducing waste equates to reducing costs in ways that allow them to maintain and increase customer satisfaction.

However, lean works to the extent that people in the organization commit to understanding the right problems to solve. Work then becomes an exercise in learning by experimentation, as the community members, including customers, engage with one another to reflect and act on those activities that provide authentic forms of value.

Take, for example, one of the basic tools by which people put lean into practice, the A3. With A3 the lean practitioner frames the goals for his/heractivity, along with the problems associated with achieving the desired outcome, on a sheet of paper that historically has had A3 dimensions.

There is space to capture True North, or what value they envision delivering to their client. There is a place to reflect upon past practices and attempts to meet demand. What worked? Where might we improve? There is a place, too, for ideas to try in order to improve in the future. What paths do we walk to reach True North?

And, we have space for our action plan: the processes and milestones we plan to achieve as we work to deliver more value as we remove waste in the form of wasted time, effort, and materials. Pascal Dennis introduces the A3 in an approachable way in his book, Getting the Right Things Done.

To the extent the organization views lean as a process of continuous reflection, learning, and improvement, the people who sponsor the lean initiative and the people who sponsor the innovation initiative should find themselves bosom buddies. One finds that the need to draw swords and decapitate colleagues declines.

Imagine, for example, the possibilities that open when the group leading the innovation initiative helps the lean practitioner gain fuller perspective on True North in the form of a challenge question to the community that both programs share?

Imagine the benefits this approach can bring when the community is geographically dispersed and, while they remain invested in the subject at hand, do not have the opportunity to engage the practitioner in person as often as they would like. A timed challenge takes on the attributes of a virtual kaizen.

Continuous reflection and reframing of True North relative to the nature of the demand for the activity is an integral part of the lean practice. Imagine, by extension, supporting open ideation whereby the lean practitioners in the organization can continually evolve their thinking on the core problems. The innovation initiative may for the first time enable the lean program office to reach directly all members participating in the value chain, enabling the team to get everyone’s perspective in real time.

Imagine, too, opening the community to the client in the form of open ideation, or ideation that invites people outside the immediate boundaries of the organization to participate? Going to the gemba, or that place where value is created, can take many forms, including collaborative ideation through social media to gain perspective through crowd sourcing. The ideation challenge complements the kaizen, bringing more people into the activity of solving problems.

Innovation initiatives and programs such as lean complement one another when you consider the fundamentals they share. Progressive organizations that seek ever higher levels of productivity assign a high value to the benefits that come from creating an environment where all the members actively engage in continual reflection on and experimentation to solve problems that get in the way of satisfying demand.

Innovation and, by extension, collaborative ideation, can serve as a powerful means to that end. Figure 1 maps some of the high-level connections that the sponsors of innovative and lean practices can make between their respective activities.

Figure 1: mapping collaborative ideation with the practice of lean

Click to enlarge

One challenge that leaders of an innovation initiative face is that, by having that title and by carrying that charter, people in the organization can infer that they are off the hook on this front. No need to worry about innovation: the group down the hall has us covered.

Of course, this mindset works against the innovation charter. The people working on the innovation initiative want to help their peers realize their potential for leading innovation. To this end, linking the innovation initiative to the incumbent programs in authentic ways becomes an integral part of the group’s mission (figure 2).

Incumbent initiatives that embrace continual learning as a means of solving problems represent fertile ground for partnership for the organization’s innovation initiative. Let the clans of lean and innovation live in peace, sharing the occasional haggis at the company picnic next year.

Figure 2 : Many initiatives can benefit from the qualities that the innovation program brings to the table

Click to enlarge

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.
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  • Paul Hobcraft

    I’ve always valued this comment:

    “Value attracts customers, “Quality” earns respect, and “Innovation” differentiates your product from the competition”

    We have the growing imperative of needing all three to be in place to make a successful business.

  • Shubber Ali

    The marriage of LSS and Innovation, is not new – see the book, “Fast Innovation”, which was published by the George Group (leaders in LSS in the world) a few years ago before they were acquired by Accenture.

    Unfortunately most companies have failed to grasp the true value it can bring to their innovation process in reducing time to market by upwards of 50% depending on their current innovation state, which in most industries can be the critical differentiator between success and either, at best, middling performance, or at worst, a complete failure at launch due to lateness to market…

  • dilesh patel


    I think another important touch point between Lean and innovation is the importance of visual thinking and visual communication. In Lean you want to be able to “see” when something is wrong or right at a glance and at any time. Lean practitioners are strong advocates of the visual workplace.

    Innovation and visualization have been deeply linked for a long time. New concepts must be visualized to be understood, criticized, improved and realized.

    For a whole organization and culture to really visualize and understand the key value streams such that they can individually and collectively seek to improving them everyday is perhaps the most INNOVATIVE piece of Lean itself.



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  • Kushal Gohil


    I am no expert on Six Sigma and come from a different school of thoughts on Innovation( but the article is wonderfully articulated and makes perfect sense.

    I did come across a article which had the same view point as yours (


  • Sean Geehan

    Great article…Insightful and entertaining.
    One way to stop the Machiavellian political type war games (stalling, non-support, etc) is to have the customer be the catalyst for all innovation initiatives. By getting them in the room with the key internal team leaders (sales, development, finance, marketing, P & L owner), along with real decision makers from your most important customers you provide a powerful single point of reference.
    This reference point will guide the team on organizational direction, prioritization, and proper allocation of resources…Alignment to the people (customers) that drive your firm’s revenue is a much easier sell and de-politicizes the process by shifting to an outside-in approach. Another lean by-product is speed since many of the traditional roadblocks have been beheaded.

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  • Doug Collins


    I could not agree more. Your comments remind me of a very eloquent and heartfelt exploration of Toyota’s recent challenges with sudden acceleration by John Shook of the Lean Enterprise Institute (

    John writes…

    “So, essentially, that is where Toyota stumbled, where it all begins and ends – with the customer. Toyota’s engineers were “right” – there was nothing seriously unsafe in their vehicles (virtually nothing from an engineering or manufacturing standpoint), but events evolved so that the problem swiftly became one not of engineering but of listening to and respecting the customer. Customer first. Parts of Toyota were doing their best to listen to the customer. But, those parts of the company weren’t being listened to by the people making the decisions.”


  • Doug Collins


    Yes, one sees strong ties between the call for the lean practitioner to “see the whole” (and the connections, or value streams, therein) and for the innovator to reflect on the larger, critical question (and the connections between the insights and ideas therein).

    “How” remains an on-going challenge and an opportunity to explore new approaches to mapping in order to make meaning.


  • Anonymous

    It remains an on-going challenge and an opportunity to explore new approaches to mapping in order to make meaning.
    Office Furniture

  • Doug Collins

    I have come to believe that more than half the battle on the front you describe is finding a way to describe the problem on one sheet of paper. Simplicity.

    Can we reach a shared understanding of the challenge and what we need to do to move forward?

    Innovation becomes an integral part of the conversation when the group decides to take a new approach or to recast the problem in a new light.

  • Six Sigma

    Six Sigma is more than a fad, it can actually provide result. Six Sigma programs are often of greater organization and processes. It not only covers the interests of production, but also any business process that affects customer satisfaction.

  • Supply Chain Guy

    In my opinion, Six Sigma already provides a tool “Design for Six Sigma” to help creating innovative products/services.