Continuing with our theme of creative problem solving and the value of creativity in Continuous Improvement, sometimes you can achieve innovative solutions by systematically challenging a few key aspects of your process.
In 2004, Michael Hammer wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled Deep Change: How Operational Innovation Can Transform Your Company. In this article he described several approaches to “Re-imagining Processes” by challenging basic underlying assumptions that prevent your organization from achieving a big breakthrough. Following are a few of the ways he suggested challenging the work:
Challenge The Sequence — what steps happen in what order. A bank recently changed the fundamental sequence of work in a loan department to shorten approval times by 80%. Not only did this innovation achieve unprecedented customer service, it reduced some rework and, by closing faster, reduced risk from floating interest rates. What would happen to your process if you rearranged the steps? What other changes would be required to enable this to work?
Challenge The Roles — who must do what. Empowering individuals doing the work to also complete routine maintenance can greatly increases efficiencies and reduce wait time. An organization that empowered people close to the work to install routine software patches rather than calling for IT could greatly reduce the number of PCs with un-patched software and increase capacity of the IT department. A call center provided training and tools to the customer service reps so they could handle the whole job instead of transferring the call. What work could be transferred to the people closest to the work when the need arises? How would this accelerate the service?
Challenge The Steps — With its breakthrough cross-docking approach, Walmart challenged the assumption that products must be stored in the distribution center before they are shipped. They overcame the near universally held assumption that it was impossible to plan and execute a process where a supplier’s shipment could be loaded directly onto the distribution trucks. What steps in your process are held there by assumptions that we could never be good enough, precise enough, fast enough or accurate enough to eliminate the step?
Challenge The Location — A gerontologist decided that instead of maintaining a full office, his business could and should primarily be house calls. What if a key component of your work were executed in a completely different place? How could you increase value for your customers or increase your own efficiencies?
Challenge The Source of The Information The Process Acts On — Hammer described a manufacturer reducing inventory by basing production on actual orders than forecasts. Where are you using approximations or forecasts when you could use information closer to the source?
Our previous post focused on the value of creative thinking in Continuous Improvement. One interesting example of how we might apply creativity when solving problem is called the Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving (TRIZ).
The concept dates back to the 1950’s and Russian innovator G.S. Altshuller’s belief that innovation processes could be improved by studying patterns in problems and solutions. Altlshuller and his team analyzed millions of patents to identify patterns, and they deduced from this data a small number of principles that can be applied to make the creative process more predictably effective. The result, TRIZ, is an acronym for Russian words that translate as “the theory of inventive problem solving.”
The fundamental premise is that there is nothing new so, whatever your challenge, if you understand it both in its specific and general form and you do the research, you will find that someone somewhere has already solved it. Then if you focus your creativity on adapting the general solution to your particular challenge, you will achieve your breakthrough faster and more predictably.
TRIZ accelerates breakthroughs by guiding the human intellect along paths most likely to be fruitful. And speed of innovation is essential because most people and groups abandon a “stretch” goal fairly quickly and settle for a compromise; and “slow innovation = no innovation.”
The developers and practitioners of TRIZ observe that problems often emerge from contradictions, and that most solutions aim at compromising with the contradictions instead of overcoming them. Here are some of the contradictions that may appear in the workplace:
It takes time to do something the right way, but the thing must be done quickly
A task requires precision, but it must be done without precise tools
A product must have dozens of features, but it must be simple to use.
Each problem is a specific example of a general contradiction. TRIZ research has paired every general contradiction with a small number of general solutions. So a practitioner of TRIZ can focus their effort and intellect on translating the specific problem into one of several dozen general problems. The next step is to look up in the TRIZ resources the general solutions that have been applied to that general problem in the past. Then one focuses one’s creativity on identifying and testing specific solutions that could apply the general solution to the problem at hand.
Over the years we have recognized that creativity can be a desirable trait for a good Continuous Improvement (CI) Leader as well as for project team members.
Consider that a creative mind can be a great asset when trying to identify the difference between the status-quo and the way “things could or should be if everything were right,” which is a clear definition of waste.
Although not often associated with leadership, establishing a creative culture of continuous improvement can help managers in their efforts to achieve higher levels of team performance. Specific steps for doing so include encouraging new ideas, orchestrating “no bad ideas” brainstorming sessions, tolerating failure and using it as a learning experience, and recognizing the achievement of those involved in applying creativity to improvement initiatives.
In addition, creative thinking can be a tool for helping people accept and adapt to change.
But it is important to realize that many people fear that they are not creative or believe that they lack the ability to think in a creative fashion, which tends to prevent them from putting forth an earnest effort.
Can You Become Creative? Fortunately, according to data shared by Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, and others indicates that only “10% of creativity is genetic,” and that there are a range of activities that can help people develop a creative way of thinking. These include:
Consume content that’s outside your comfort zone
Maintain a positive outlook (often “fuels” creativity)
Participate in brainstorming activities
Test new ideas
Recognize that very little in this world is original, and that creative solutions more often come from improving what’s current
Apply strategic constraints to your ideas– this is a component of “Imagineering,” which involves first setting the “sky as the limit” when we imagine what “could or should be if everything were right,” and then engineer it back to earth for practical application
Challenges and best practices associated with continuous improvement