In the early parts of this century, Lean, especially lean-sigma came under intense criticism: An article in the Forbes magazine (Norbert Majerus, Lean-Driven Innovation, CRC Press, 2015) documented results, mainly from 3M, which indicated that lean – or at least lean-sigma – was detrimental to innovation. Indeed, 3M’s index of innovation (income from products less than 3 years old) had fallen from between 30% and 40% down to single digits.
Goodyear uses a similar index, but did not experience the same drop in innovation potential. In fact, one of our biggest innovators – Sam Landers – shared with me that he liked a certain amount of structure and process (Norbert Majerus, Lean-Driven Innovation, CRC Press, 2015). Sam, a very right-brained, creative thinker, liked to surround himself with left-brained people who were filling in with the skills that he lacked himself. Sam also liked the design standards and felt in no way confined by the standards. He would say: “At least that way, I did not have to worry about common knowledge, which I did not try to re-invent. As long as I can experiment outside the standards, I am happy.”
I personally worked in an innovation organization without structure in the 1980’s, with Sam Landers, and that organization was not very effective although it had all the resources it needed.
Today I am convinced that innovation can thrive very well in a structured process. After all, how can you improve the way you work if you do not have a minimum of a defined process? Modern lean startup thinking and lean project management can be an excellent framework for a structured innovation process. When it comes to innovation and lean, I think that it is more important to understand what not to do: Lean initiatives in innovation organizations that were just aimed at cutting the cost of the organization did not do well. Another mistake is to get carried away with standards that at the end do not allow sufficient experimentation.