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Innovation from Lean Six Sigma - Soft Skills

By Greg Evershed

Lean Six Sigma originated in the manufacturing sector and is still often associated with manufacturing even though the concepts and tools have been successfully applied to almost every industry sector including healthcare, business services and nonprofit organizations. Even with the success of other sectors in applying Lean Six Sigma concepts and tools for continuous improvement, there remains a strong perception that Lean Six Sigma is limited to improving the productivity of operational units within an organization. This perception, however, is not true.

Innovation Can Come from all Areas of the Enterprise

Lean Six Sigma has been applied to almost all aspects of the enterprise from human resources departments to research and development teams, product development teams, sales and marketing teams and more. There is also a strong perception that innovation comes only from those employees involved in designing or creating products or services lending the belief that other parts of the enterprise cannot innovate. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, contributions to innovation can be made by the entire enterprise and Lean Six Sigma has contributed to developing innovative business models and processes as well as innovations in products and services.

What is the link between Lean Six Sigma and organizational wide innovation? The following explores the potential for Lean Six Sigma to foster innovation.

Lean Six Sigma is Not Just Technical Tools Nor is it Limited in Application to Operational Areas

Although Lean Six Sigma is often associated with technical data analysis tools such as statistical methods like regression analysis or design of experiments (DOE), there is a “soft” side as well. This involves critical soft skills such as:

  • Communication skills – both verbal and written.
  • The ability to motivate and foster teamwork.
  • The ability to appreciate and work with other viewpoints and involve all stakeholders.

In essence it is the leadership ability to build a collaborative work environment.

Lean Six Sigma Green and Black Belt candidates go through a formal training process, unfortunately, soft skills and leadership development is neglected. Instead the emphasis is placed on technical skills and related problem solving methods.

Ironically, what innovation organizations strive for within their product or service development areas is dependent on these soft skills. When examining innovation in highly technical areas such as product development or research and development, it might be assumed that technical skills create innovative products and services. While there certainly is truth in this assumption, the reality is that the ability of research and development and product development organizations to effectively communicate and collaborate is equally critical.
For example, the ability to communicate with customers to understand how they use a product or to understand desired future capabilities in a product leads to increased innovation. By the same token, the ability to collaborate with others outside of the internal product development group such as the field sales force or external suppliers leads to a stronger opportunity for innovation and creativity.

True collaboration with external suppliers can lead to reduced costs in order to manufacture products through identification of opportunities and to use less expensive materials or consolidation of individual parts and components. Additionally, collaborating with suppliers can generate innovative ideas to create effective supply chain processes, which could result in reduced administrative and procurement costs and improved delivery schedules.

If soft skills contribute to innovation for those focused on creating or designing products and services can it also be critical to incremental innovation potential throughout the organization? Can these soft skills contribute to innovation in customer service and internal business processes such as invoicing, order tracking, fulfillment or human resource management systems? Yes, of course!

The ability to apply these soft leadership skills, especially within a cross disciplinary environment, will lead to stronger collaboration and a significant increase in creative thoughts. For example, employees from accounting or marketing can contribute to development of new or improved processes for customer warranty claims. Without this type of cross disciplinary collaboration, developing a new process would be left to the viewpoint of one department and the opportunity to merge different viewpoints is lost.

Role of Senior Leadership – Change Culture

These soft skills contribute to developing a culture of innovation throughout an organization, therefore, development of these capabilities should be integrated within any Lean Six Sigma or Continuous Improvement initiative. To successfully develop an organizational culture that is receptive to innovation, the senior management of the organization must actively support and encourage development of these skills at all levels of the organization. Without this crucial support from senior managers, innovation through Lean Six Sigma will be difficult to achieve on a consistent basis.

Developing these soft skills and fostering a culture of continuous incremental innovation will lead to organizational capabilities that support the organization’s strategic plan and will contribute to gaining a competitive advantage.

About the Author:

Greg Evershed is the Director of Business Development, Kate Gleason College of Engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology. Contact Greg Evershed at greg.evershed (at)