Innovation is the antithesis of efficiency

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” —Albert Einstein

3M is the third most innovative company in the world, behind Apple and Google. It sells fifty-five thousand different products—giving it a nearly 1:1 product-to-employee ratio—and generates 30 percent of its annual revenue from products that didn’t exist 5 years ago.

The essential feature of 3M’s innovation is its “flexible attention policy.” Instead of requiring constant concentration, and working to improve efficiency ratios, it encourages people to make time for activities that are unproductive—going for a walk, reading, etc.

Have you ever seen Lean Six-Sigma promote such a concept? I haven’t.

Innovation is the antithesis of efficiency.


  1. Ron,

    I don?t think efficiency is the antithesis of innovation. There is nothing unproductive about taking a walk or taking a break from work. These breaks contribute to efficiency by clearing heads and creating more motivated and innovative employees.

    I also have to disagree with your implication that Lean Six Sigma (LSS) doesn?t promote creativity. That?s a bit like saying the growth of apple trees does not promote the harvest of oranges. LSS is a process optimization methodology. It doesn?t attempt to target the creative, in-your-head eureka moment when you think of an idea for a new product. However, it can help you get there by using voice of the client tools to determine customer needs and then, in a creative, brainstorming process, lead to innovative products that meet those needs. Then LSS can help you streamline the process that gets your new and innovative ideas from the desktop to the shop floor. On the shop floor, you can use LSS to build new, efficient and innovative processes for Lean, defect-free manufacture of the new product — you can bet that 3M is constantly driving for new production efficiencies on its ?stickies? line. There is innovation at every step.

    In our business, creativity is a little different. We provide practice management advice to lawyers. We use LSS tools to optimize legal and administrative processes in a firm or in-house legal department. We work with lawyers to find new ways to increase efficiency and eliminate waste in their practice, particularly for routine, commoditized work. However, we understand the necessity and value of creative and innovative thinking to resolve particular client issues. We build time for those creative moments into the process that we?re optimizing because, for lawyers, that creative thinking is a big part of the value-add.

    Applying LSS doesn?t mean leaving creativity or innovation out. For us, innovation is part of the process. Sure, those eureka moments can?t be ?optimized? in the traditional sense, but the possibility that they will occur can certainly be optimized.Through its flexible attention policy, 3M optimizes the opportunity for creativity and innovation. 3M builds time for creative thought into the day. There?s nothing inefficient or inherently non-Lean about that.

  2. Karen,
    Thank you for your comment.

    I have written enough on this topic to make your ears bleed. Suffice to say, I find your argument completely unpersuasive.

    You can be efficient at doing the wrong things. The buggy whip manufacturers were models of efficiency?so what?

    A law firm?indeed, any business?isn?t paid to be efficient. It?s paid to be effective. Competitive advantage is built around effectiveness, not efficiency.

    You say Lean can bring in the voice of the customer, but I?m still waiting for a professional firm that uses LSS to trash timesheets and the billable hour, the most non-value added annoyance to the customer ever devised. I won?t hold my breath, since LSS loves to measure, look inward, and has no sense of external value created.

    The empirical evidence just doesn?t support the quest for efficiency?a mindless ratio, whereas effectiveness is always a judgment?doing the right thing.

    3M and Google providing 15-20% time is deliberately inefficient, but this is where innovation comes from. Nordstrom putting pianos in its store is inefficient, but loved by customers. Ritz-Carlton escorting you to the meeting room, rather than pulling out a map, is inefficient, but highly effective. The examples are endless, and even more so in a professional knowledge firm.

    I?m not anti-efficiency. But we are efficient with things, not people. And professional knowledge firms are all about people and relationships. Efficiency is not the talisman.

    And one more point: any knowledge worker who doesn?t become more efficient over time isn?t thinking, or competent. A lawyer will be more efficient writing his 100th brief than his first few. It?s called the learning curve, and LSS taking credit for this increase is the equivalent of the rooster taking credit for the sun rising because he crows every morning.

    I?m happy to further this discussion, but if you just read a few posts on this site (and there are many others on this debate, just search ?efficiency?), you will see where we stand.

    No one has refuted logically, or empirically, our arguments. And we are not alone: Peter Drucker, Gary Hamel, Stephen Covey, Clayton Christensen, Henry Mintzberg, Tom Peters, Rory Sutherland, and too many other giants to mention, have all written on this difference.

    I stand by what I wrote: LSS has no place in a professional knowledge firm?it is in the antithesis of innovation.

    Knowledge firms aren?t factories, and to apply a methodology that was born in the Industrial Era is archaic, and suboptimal.

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