Can quality and innovation coexist?

Improving quality is often viewed as a “mom and apple pie” issue; it’s fairly rare to hear a corporate spokesman rail against the need for quality.  But quality does indeed have some detractors who say that raising quality levels can also raise costs, and a focus on quality can ripple out to stifle other aspects of a business.

Attacks on Six Sigma are a case in point. It’s been criticized as an overly expensive approach to eke out incremental advances. More recently, Six Sigma has been accused of stifling innovation. That charge prompted the American Society for Quality (ASQ) to look into the impact quality programs can have on innovation. Fresh Thinking on Innovation and Quality, a white paper unveiled this month, addresses what it calls an “unwritten and unquestioned axiom that quality and innovation are incompatible.”

The 8-page paper examines the source of reports that companies like 3M Co. hampered innovation by imposing strict quality controls. It explores many facets of innovation, highlighting the many attempts to determine what sparks this creativity.

The study provides some pretty interesting angles as it comes to a result that one might expect from ASQ: that quality programs themselves aren’t incompatible with creativity. Companies need to promote and foster innovation, using Six Sigma and other quality programs to help manage risk.

It’s often management’s approach to quality programs that stifles innovation, not the programs themselves. Many successful companies including DuPont and Procter & Gamble have implemented Six Sigma programs without seeing a change in innovative activity.

There’s good info here for companies that are looking for ways to ensure that quality issues won’t plague their future. In just a few pages, ASQ provides a fair amount of insight into the complex challenge of determining how much quality improvements are worth.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 18, 2011 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    There’s no reason why Six Sigma should hamper innovation—if it’s used properly. Management needs to understand that quality process tools aren’t appropriate for all parts of a job and should analyze where these tools can best benefit the bottom line.

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