Analytic vs. creative thinking

“Now I have to tell you something, and I mean this in the best and most inoffensive way possible: I don’t believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that “it’s all about the process,” I see that as a bad sign…The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.” Written by Elon Musk

Andrew Smart begins his essay “Six Sigma is Draining Employees’ Creativity,” with the above quote. He goes on to state that Six Sigma thinking applied to an organization is analogous to the reduction of variation of neurons in the brain during a devastating epileptic seizure.

Processes such as Six Sigma simply provide a rational framework for integrating different types of thinking. Analytic thinking is the act of converging on facts, data, information, judgment, experience and wisdom in search of one best answer. Creative thinking is the act of diverging one’s thinking to explore many different options. Depending on the situation, they can be complimentary and necessary. Process, when applied correctly, does not take the place of thinking and it certainly does not cause epileptic seizures – either individually or organizationally. That said, when applied incorrectly, process can have the effect of reducing morale, inducing widespread cynicism, stopping innovation, and/or turning people into mindless bureaucrats! But that is the fault of the practitioner; not the fault of the process.

Warren Buffett once said, “How I got here is pretty simple in my case. It’s not IQ, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear. The big thing is rationality. I always look at IQ and talent as representing the horsepower of the motor, but that the output – the efficiency with which that motor works – depends on rationality. A lot of people start out with 400 horse power motors but only get a hundred horsepower of output. It’s way better to have a 200 horsepower motor and get it all into output.”

So who’s right? The guy worth $40B or the guy worth $5B? My guess is that they are both right. I would also bet that both have the ability to move intuitively from being process/analytic driven to being creative (or vice versa) at the drop of a hat. The best thinkers do!

Mr. Smart concludes his essay by stating “Six Sigma ruins your day, and it doesn’t even work.” Given the documented success of companies using Six Sigma, and for that matter other process driven approaches, this comment is without merit and is at best a reminder of the enormous value of both analytic and creative thought.

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