Every so often an article appears discussing the need to change focus from process improvement to innovation (and recently they are followed with quite a bit of blog talk). I disagree on several grounds. First you have needed to focus on both all the time. Second, it is not an either or choice. Third, the process of innovation should be improved.
I do not believe process improvement is bad for innovation. Bad process changes can be bad for innovation. But if we are looking at a research and development organization where the output is new products then process improvement would be focused on improving the processes to make that happen. The type of process improvement would be different than those made to manufacturing a product better.
Some six sigma efforts are little more than cost cutting efforts. And those efforts might claim a “process improvement” that is really just cutting costs in R&D. But we should not confuse bad management with the good practice of process improvement. Yes, cutting costs for the sake of cutting costs often leads to problems. Waste should be eliminated (which can reduces cost). Focus on eliminating waste. Eliminating waste in innovation activities is no worse than eliminating it anywhere. It might be more difficult to determine what is waste (that is where management skill and knowledge come into play) but the idea that process improvement (including eliminating waste is bad for innovation is something that should be rejected). And process improvement in innovation should not be limited to eliminating waste.
A good example of process improvement in innovation activities: Fast Cycle Change in Knowledge-Based Organizations (pdf format) by Ian Hau and Ford Calhoun, published by the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement, University of Wisconsin – Madison.