Innovation vs Quality

Thanks to a friend sharing a link on FB, I chanced upon an interesting post on the VC Circle blog entitled ‘Status Quo Police‘ by Adam Hartung.  The writeup covers many aspects of innovation in large scale enterprise, and the impediments that innovators face.  What particularly interested me was Hartung’s argument on how Quality systems and practices can often become the biggest obstacles to Innovation:

Quality – Who can argue with the need to have quality? Total Quality Management (TQM,) Continuous Improvement (CI,) and Six Sigma programs all have been glorified by companies hoping to improve product or service quality. If you’re trying to fix a broken product, or process, these work pretty well at helping everyone do their job better.

But these programs live with the mantra “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Measure everything that’s important.” If you’re innovating, what do you measure? If you’re in a new technology, or manufacturing process, how do you know what you really need to do right? If you’re in a new market, how do you know the key metric for sales success?

The key to success isn’t to have critical metrics and measure performance on a graph, but rather to learn from everything you do – and usually to change. Quality people hate this, and can only stand in the way of trying anything new because you don’t know what to measure, or what constitutes a “good” measure.

Now, I’ve spent a fair bit of my working life as a Six Sigma / Quality champion, and an even longer tenure developing cutting-edge Technology solutions for organizations.  Given my background, I always viewed Systems and Processes as two sides of the same coin.  In fact, I believed that real success in one depended on success in the other. 

But, Hartung has a point.

If you go by the classical approach, practitioners of Quality typically stick to the “what gets measured, gets improved” argument and, therefore, are unable to get a good grip around ideas that reek of blue-sky thinking and innovation.  How ironic that the champions of Change become obstacles to change itself!

On the other hand, innovators have to contend with uncharted territories and unknown experiences, often-times operating in an environment that does not understand their unique needs.  As Hartung elaborates:

… When you’re innovating, what you don’t know far exceeds what you know. You don’t know the market size, the price that people will pay, the first year’s volume (much less year 5,) the direct cost at various volumes, the indirect cost, the cost of marketing to obtain customer attention, the number of sales calls it will take to land a sale, how many solution revisions will be necessary to finally put out the “right” solution, or how sales will ramp up quarterly from nothing. So to create a business plan, you have to guess.

Everything done to efficiently run the old business is irrelevant when it comes to innovation.

When you think about it, for any organization to succeed, it must achieve a fine balance – between maintaining status quo and forging a new path, between encouraging new ideas and rewarding evolutionary growth, and ultimately, between Quality and Innovation.  Easier said than done, don’t you think?

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