Why Process Improvement Depends on Creative Thinking

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

If your organization has made great strides in its improvement program, but you’re still not delivering that string of innovations you expected, maybe your approach to Lean Six Sigma is missing a secret element – creativity. For even a black-and-white problem there could be a kaleidoscope of possible solutions. That’s why process improvement depends on creative thinking. Let’s look at how unleashing your imagination within the well-defined methods of quality improvement can help you achieve high-return breakthroughs.  

three business professionals gathered around a white board with sticky notes
Isn’t Process Improvement Incompatible with Creativity?

Lean Six Sigma practitioners focus on standardization, managing by fact, and making improvements in a systematic way. Doesn’t that all but eliminate space for creative thinking? Not in the least, according to Bella Englebach, author of Creatively Lean: How to Get Out of Your Own Way and Drive Innovation Throughout Your Organization. Applying the methodologies of process improvement actually can open the door to creativity.


You can “practice the scientific method in business,” Englebach wrote, while implementing “truly creative countermeasures to your business problems.”


Familiar to any process improvement practitioner are the letters DMAIC. Most Green and Black Belts are far more comfortable with the D, M, and A – define, measure, and analyze – than they are with the I for improvement. Finding solutions demands creativity. For most process managers, a circumscribed scientific system seems so much less alarming than reaching into one’s own free-floating imagination to solve a business challenge.  


In our fast-paced global marketplace, arriving at creative solutions depends upon imaginative reflection and bold action. But creativity has always been critical to process improvement. A sensei, or coach, for Lean Six Sigma Green Belts often will suggest that their protégé go back to the problem and think deeper. Englebach says accomplishing this deeper thought requires two ways of thinking. One is in a flexible, broad way or divergent thinking. The other is convergent thinking, pinpointing and analyzing ideas. Despite convergent thinking being associated with intelligent, rational problem-solving and divergent thinking with out-there creative types, they are not conflicting propositions. Both can be learned, and both play well with process improvement.

coworkers around a conference table with one woman making notes on a giant pad of paper

Improve Your Convergent Thinking

This is the method of problem-solving that results in a single best solution. Your concerns with convergent thinking are speed, logic, accuracy, and bringing together existing knowledge to answer a question. This is the kind of thinking that helps you do well on standardized tests. Because it can be rigid and defined, convergent thinking can be improved by welcoming these suggestions into your thought process:  

  • Verify your options and your goals.
  • Be deliberate and non-judgmental.
  • Strengthen and develop your ideas.
  • Improve rather than eliminate options.
  • Consider off-the-wall ideas, too.


Develop Better Divergent Thinking

This is the method of problem-solving that results in unexpected pairings, disparate connections, complication, spontaneity, and a multiplicity of viewpoints. Your concerns with divergent thinking are curiosity, elaboration, flexibility, fluency, originality, and persistence. This is the kind of thinking that triggers novel solutions and can be inspired by group brainstorming, solitary pondering, nonconformity, and risk-taking. Because it can be uncomfortable for process improvement practitioners, you might find your divergent thinking is improved by welcoming these suggestions to your thought process:

  • Compile a wide range of ideas, advice, models, and resources.
  • Brainstorm with coworkers who aren’t involved in the project.
  • Give yourself time to do “thought experiments” before deciding.  
  • Challenge every assumption. 
  • Write down every idea. 

team of professionals laughing and having fun creating ideas together in front of a clear board with sticky notes

Bring Your Creativity Together

When you’re depending on your own or your team’s imagination to land on a solution, it helps to meld the two methods of thinking. Consider it this way: You’re applying some of that process improvement discipline to your most uninhibited ideation. Start with the panoramic view, exploring every original divergent option, then focus by applying convergent thinking.


Funneling your ideas from the broadest to the most specific can be overwhelming, but separate the two processes in order, then ask a few vital questions to find the best path forward:

  • Which idea would your customers like best?
  • Which idea is more strategic?
  • Which idea is more achievable?
  • Which idea could be more profitable?
  • Which ideas can be combined?  


If you want to shift your mindset to arrive at creative solutions for your organization, USF’s Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education offers a comprehensive process improvement certification program leading to the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt

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