Tag Archives: innovation

Creative Problem Solving Via Challenging Your Processes

Challenging Process Steps

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?

Creative Problem Solving With “TRIZ”

How to Apply Creativity to CI

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.

TRIZ research and practice has been expanded into a rich tool kit for
innovation, but probably the simplest approach is to use the ‘40 Principles.’ A list of these can be found at triz-journal.com/40-inventive-principles-examples.

“Selling” the Concept of Change

change is good, but never “easy!”

The point has been made, in prior posts, that “change” is not always perceived as being good, and instead tends to promote fear, uncertainty, doubt; and even resentment!

Consider that, in organizations of all types people tend to look with skepticism at new policies and procedures, and look with deep concern at new compensation plans or updated benefits programs. Similarly, in their daily quest for new customers, sales people constantly struggle to overcome buyers’ comfort with the status-quo; and people at all levels regularly cringe at the suggestion that there might be a different or better way to do their jobs!

Yet without change comes stagnation… and potentially worse things too. Current-day examples include Polaroid in instant photography, Blockbuster in video, Xerox in copiers, or the Yellow Pages! Each of these household name enterprises experienced significant declines, or worse, as competitors introduced new and better alternatives.

The cassette tape replaced the eight-track, but was then outdone by the compact disc, which was undercut by MP3 players… and the list can go on.

A Selling Mission…
If we’re to learn from these examples, then we must accept the fact that change — either in the form of innovation, continuous improvement or both — is a critical component of growth and ongoing success. Without innovation and change we run the risk of losing our competitive position or potential obsolescence.

“Whatever made you successful in the past won’t in the future,” said the late Hewlett Packard CEO Lew Platt.

But if people tend to resist change as previously noted, how might managers or business owners best go about getting the team to accept it — to buy in? How can we help people more readily embrace improvement programs, try new protocols, accept new pricing models or generally believe in the up-side of change?

Simply stated, we must sell it.

Just like the sales and marketing experts who create the “new and improved” ad copy, slogans and selling presentations, we must sell the concept of change to our staff members before trying to present or roll-out new policies, procedures, campaigns, programs or plans.

And just like any sales mission, this will require forethought and planning.

We might start by identifying how the team will benefit from a proposed change. What’s in it for them? What are the consequences of not changing? What will it cost? What opportunities might we lose?

What’s the competition doing?

The next step is to determine how to properly position a proposed change. Since we know there is a tendency toward defensiveness, it’s important to make people understand that they are not the problem. In other words, a change in policy or approach need not mean that the team has been doing things the wrong way. Rather, it means the world is changing and we must change too, lest we fall behind.

Finally, once the presentation is made and the new whatever is launched, there must be follow-up reinforcement and assessment. Has everything worked as we’d hoped? Should we modify the new plan? Are there unforeseen consequences? While we don’t want to send a message indicating we’re not resolved to the new program or approach, it is also a good idea to let everyone know we’re fair and open-minded — that at the end of the day we’re all on the same side.

Change may be unsettling, but without it our futures are at risk; and there are clearly ways to minimize the negative effects. It will require effort, planning and, like any selling mission, persistence, as behaviors and attitudes are not easily influenced.

Margaret Thatcher may have summed it up best when saying, “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it!”

Innovation & Cross-Functional Collaboration

Continuing with the theme of innovation, the breakthrough process innovations that achieve order-of-magnitude improvements almost always require cross-organizational collaboration.

So it’s not surprising that this level of innovation is difficult to achieve because, while cross-organizational improvement efforts present substantial opportunities, they also pose some formidable obstacles.

Three of the most common barriers to cross-functional success, along with some ideas on how to overcome them, are:

Too many people… One of the basic facts of accomplishing cross-organizational work is that we must involve more people.  This size factor alone can make the project more difficult to execute. The larger the group, the more effort is required to ensure that good working relationships develop among the team members.  Scheduling meetings becomes more difficult, and individuals may take less responsibility because with a large group it is easier to assume someone else will pick up the slack.

To better-manage larger project teams, leaders must pay close attention to organizational tools and methods, such as forming a proper charter, clearly-defining roles, maintaining consistent communication with top management, scheduling meetings well-in advance and on a regular time-table, distributing meeting agendas in advance to promote awareness and preparedness, and adhering to effective meeting management protocols.

Cumbersome logistics… Cross-organizational improvement projects frequently involve multiple locations, different time zones, and different cultures. Not only can these factors pose scheduling challenges, but also bring about issues with respect to team-building and communication.

To overcome or minimize these challenges, leaders can schedule the initial meeting in person and invest in intensive team-building up front.   For remote meetings, they can add interactive visual communication and employ a more interactive facilitation style; scheduling can “rotate” to accommodate different time zones as well.

Conflicting priorities… The biggest impediment to accomplishing cross-organizational improvements is the power of competing priorities, which can make it hard to form an overall consensus or gain buy-in to the overall mission and vision.  The danger of shifting priorities is many times larger with cross-organizational projects as well, making it more likely that new urgent demands will arise before the project is complete, and resources become overloaded and start missing meetings and skipping action items.

To address these challenges, leaders can begin by conducting a thorough analysis that highlights the enterprise-wide benefits that are at stake. Engaging top level sponsors is also a must. While sponsor engagement is essential to the success of most change efforts, it is more critical for a cross-organizational improvement project. It is also important for all parties to respect the inevitable differences in priorities and operation models, and to avoid the appearance of being judgmental or of telling others “how they should be doing their jobs.”

Finally, nothing succeeds more than success! Achieving some quick wins, and sharing the details, is a great way to start.  Successfully addressing chronic problems is especially great for keeping people engaged and ready to do more. Facilitators are also sales people for the facts, data, methods, and for getting buy-in for the team’s recommendations.  But be sure to leverage every success to encourage more participation.

 

5 Innovation Catalysts

Recent posts have focused on common barriers to innovation, so today we’ll share five catalysts or tools that can help an organization become more innovative.

  1. Capitalize on a need… It has often been said that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” One company observed that when their very survival was at risk, they began to implement a program of Continuous Improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implementable ideas. Because they had to develop new and better ways of operating, they did! Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away. However, it must be less scary to try something new and risk failure than it is to stay with the status quo, and people at all levels must have a sense of “amnesty” to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas.
  2. Involve outsiders… “It is easiest to think outside the box, when you are from outside the box.” Outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo. But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, “We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that’s not the way we do it here.”
  3. Know the marketplace…  Market instincts can sometimes be more valuable than technological know-how or financial heft. For example, when Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was simply amazing. But it cost $300 to build and only worked for a few weeks. To make the mouse truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision and market insight to add the constraints: the mouse must cost less than $15 to make and operate reliably for two years.
  4. Imagine perfection… To foster true process innovation we must summon the courage to acknowledge the deep areas of waste that are part of our standard work. This might include inspection or rework or moving or waiting that is so intrinsically a part of the way we work that we cannot envision the work without it. Summon the courage to put that waste on the table, calling it what it is. Go ahead and imagine the process without the steps that add no real value — that just compensate for a flaw somewhere in the process — and then take the time to search for ways to get to that vision.
  5. Leadership… Nothing is more important than the right form of leadership to empower and unleash an organization’s creative talents and energy.  An innovative culture is not the default position — it must be carefully created.

Read the full article…

3 Big Barriers to Innovation

Our previous post referenced a common obstacle to major process innovation as being a reluctance to challenge the “status-quo.”

Three additional and significant barriers to innovation are:

  1. Time… Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier because people are simply too busy to think about innovation. “If my boss’s boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I better be too.” This is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by.
  2. Too much at stake… Innovation requires risk taking, and large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on the plate to risk. When a well established company with a broad customer base introduces a new product, expectations are quite high and risks must be carefully weighed. Each potential innovation must be considered and evaluated in light of the existing portfolio of products and commitments. Innovation becomes much more complicated and difficult.
  3. Too many ideas… While everyone realizes we cannot innovate with too few ideas, we also can’t get anywhere with too many. Innovation requires a well disciplined process as well as a fast flowing stream of ideas. An organization needs to have an effective way to pivot from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing. Ideas can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.

Now that we’ve identified some of the most common challenges to innovation, our next post will focus on specific ways to overcome these obstacles and to develop a culture of innovation.

Challenging Assumptions?

To achieve a significant breakthrough through a significant process innovation and improvement, we must challenge and overcome assumptions.

This type of process innovation is one that significantly changes the speed, the cost, and/or an aspect of the quality of a process or service, and has the potential to change the competitive landscape.

A few examples:

  • An insurance company overwhelmed the competition by shortening the time between claim filing and payment from weeks to hours.
  • A small bank picked up market share through a process innovation reducing the number of days to approval by 80%.
  • Dell Computer went from upstart to market leader with a process innovation that dramatically shortened the time from start-of-build to ready-to-ship — enabling them to build-to-order and dramatically reduce manufacturing costs.

But every business operates under the constraints of operating assumptions, many of which are not recognized as such because they are considered simple  facts-of-life; because they are so ingrained in an organization’s paradigm that we assume they are irrefutable facts.

To challenge these “facts” is, of course, easier said than done.  We all want to achieve a process innovation that will remake the competitive landscape in our favor, and we all want to make improvements that will enhance our competitive position in the marketplace. But it is hard to accomplish these types of continuous improvements when people are running hard just keeping up with the day-to-day workload, and when some of the barriers to attempting significant changes appear to be irrefutable facts-of-life.

Consequently, game changing innovations are rare.

If your organization is going to identify and execute process innovation, you have to have created both the right human conditions and the best methods to successfully identify, challenge, and reverse the constraining assumptions that are keeping you and your competition trapped in the status quo.

Fear of Failure?

Waste within an organization often hides, and people are frequently surprised when the realize how much of it actually exists. The waste falls into four categories: time, capital, material, and lost opportunities.

During recent discussions with our Partners in Improvement, it was unanimously agreed that, in order to develop a culture of Continuous Improvement, people throughout an organization must feel free to try new things, challenge current methods, and express new ideas without fear.  Otherwise, the organization will likely miss out on many opportunities for improvement or growth, thus increasing what is typically the biggest form of waste — lost opportunities.

In order to develop and sustain a culture of Continuous Improvement, leaders must drive-out fear so that the people closest to the work will approach their jobs with the above-mentioned curiosity… with a mindset of continuously finding new ways to improve, and with a mindset that it’s okay to challenge the status-quo and to make mistakes.

In a recent article,  Career Coach Jan Johnston Osburn outlined several indicators that an organization is being ruled by fear and, consequently, missing out on opportunities. This list included:

  1. New ideas don’t pop-up very often
  2. The office is silent when the boss is around
  3. Meetings take place before the “real meetings” so people can make sure they don’t say the wrong things in front of the boss
  4. Too much consensus
  5. People hide mistakes and play the “blame game”

The article goes on to suggest that fear within an organization  slows down progress, causes hesitation, reduces productivity, and leads to stress.

“Fear-trodden employees hold your business back,” Johnson Osburn says. “If you have any fear in your organization, employee potential is drastically reduced.”

To further support this perspective, a quote from Thomas J. Watson of I.B.M. fame: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

 

Innovation Enablers!

boxSince our previous few posts have focused on barriers to innovation, it only seems right that we might also review some ideas for enabling it…

These methods require strong and empowering leadership to lay out the market constraints, make clear the threats from the changing environment and the opportunities that may arise, and provide the amnesty to take a risk to put ideas and observations on the table.

Necessity
When, in the 1950’s, Taiichi Ohno led a delegation to visit Ford to learn how to build automobiles, he was dismayed by the inventory, the huge warehouses and sprawling production facilities, the staggeringly large workforces. Toyota had nothing like those resources to emulate that system. They lacked the capital for all that inventory and they lacked the space for those sprawling production facilities. They needed a much leaner system, and so they invented one – because they had to!

Another  company observed that when their very survival was at risk, they began to implement a program of Continuous Improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implementable ideas. Because they had to develop new and better ways of operating, they did!

Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away. And it must be less scary to try something new and risk failure than it is to stay with the status quo. To create this condition, you must provide amnesty to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas; but it also helps if the status quo looks pretty untenable.

Outside the Box Thinking
Outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo. But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, “We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that’s not the way we do it here.”

Imagineering
To foster process innovation we must summon the courage to acknowledge the deep areas of waste that are part of our standard work. We all have this: inspection or rework or moving or waiting that is so intrinsically a part of the way we work that we cannot envision the work without it.

Because we cannot immediately think of any possible alternatives, we look the other way and thus we cannot innovate.

Summon the courage to put that waste on the table, calling it what it is. We have seen remarkable feats of innovation inspired by this simple act — recognizing waste for what it is. Go ahead and imagine the process without the steps that add no real value — that just compensate for a flaw somewhere in the process — and then take the time to search for ways to get to that vision.

Imagine perfection.

Lots of Ideas Can Be a Surprising Barrier to Innovation & Continuous Improvement!

People readily agree that we cannot innovate with too few ideas. Fortunately there are numerous methods for surfacing “innovative thought,” such as brain-storming, checklists, or the five W’s and 1 H.

But can’t get anywhere with too many ideas either!

toomanychoicesWhen too many ideas are generated by the above-listed methods, the risks of choosing the wrong idea or the complications associated with choosing the best idea can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.  To be effectively innovative an organization must have a process for pivoting from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing.

It is no surprise that one of Bill Conway’s favorite sayings has always been, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on.”