Tag Archives: innovation

5 Catalysts to Innovation

THE WAY THINGS COULD BE?

Our two previous posts have focused on common barriers to innovation, so it seemed only logical to share some of our observations as to how organizations have overcome these barriers by leveraging various catalysts or “enablers” to innovative thought and behavior.

But be advised, 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 – “the mother of invention”
When Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was simply amazing. And it cost $300 to build and only worked for a few weeks, but they had a generous budget so it was okay. Yet to make the mouse truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision to add the constraints: the mouse must be buildable for under $15 and operate reliably for at least two years.

For successful innovation, you need people to seek out the real-world constraints that must be respected in order to actualize the idea. Until the idea can work within the constraints — like Apple’s mouse — it is still in the germination stage, not yet a true innovation.

“Freedom is just another word for nothing to lose”
It’s often easier to try something new or innovative, and to risk failure, when the status quo looks pretty untenable. As the saying goes, never waste a crisis, and if you don’t think you have one, look further around you. Change is inevitable; a threat is always on its way.

For example, 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. Or an established organization might need to make innovative changes due to operational disruption. For example, if the system or tool or supplier or technology they are using is going away or changing, it is a good time to rethink the work entirely.

It’s important to recognize that leaders must provide amnesty to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas when making these types of innovative changes.

It’s easier 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.”

Know the market; know your customers — internal as well as external
Market instincts are more valuable than technological know-how or financial heft. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating article in The New Yorker, Creation Myth — Xerox PARC, Apple, and Creation of the Mouse, he suggests that Xerox could never have capitalized on the mouse because they did not have the instincts for the consumer market. They had the technological talent, but that was simply not enough; personal computing is a consumer market and Xerox’s reservoir of market instincts was for commercial enterprises. Steve Jobs knew the consumer market. Similarly, Cisco was forced to close down its Flip video and HP pulled out of the tablet market — both retreated from consumer markets back to their core markets.

Process innovation also requires getting close to the customers. To be able to innovate work processes, you must go to the work. ‘Go to the Gemba (or work place),’ is the Toyota mantra. Asking customers what they need or want is simply not going to be enough. They cannot innovate for you — you must go and watch them use your product to really understand the market. You must go and watch the work flow in order to understand the processes and the problems that workers grapple with. You must see for yourself in order to envision a better product or process.

Imagine Perfection
Last but not least, to foster process innovation 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 or the way things could or should be if everything was right.

“Imagineer!”

Barriers to Innovation

Our previous post identified the “innovation dilemma” faced by many organizations. Continuing on that theme, our experience and research into barriers to innovation surfaced three paradoxical observations:

Lack of Time or Too Much Time?
Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier. People are 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.

But dedicating resources to innovation does not seem to work that well, either. It may foster a creative environment, but this does not necessarily translate into more workable innovations. One organization created an innovative think tank with 12-14 people led by a senior executive. After two years they were disbanded because while they came up with some innovative ideas, none of them were financially viable.

Similarly, Xerox created an inventor’s paradise, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), assembled incredible talent, big budgets, and freedom from oversight by senior management back East. They envisioned a great number of wonderful things, but that did not enable them to bring these visions or prototypes to market. Many of their greatest ideas were brought to fruition by other companies.

Too Much at Stake
Innovation requires risk taking, and large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on the plate to risk.

When the large financial information firm, Bloomberg, was a small start-up with a few big ideas, the founders carried their prototype via taxi over to Merrill Lynch, their first customer. The computer had only partial functionality and nowhere near the required reliability — yet. But the risks of not bringing it out, of waiting until everything was in order, exceeded the risks of showing the product, even with some flaws remaining and some features not quite built. The meeting went very well, and the rest is history.

But 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.\

Similarly, managers at middle or high levels in an organization often have completely different risk profiles than they had in their twenties when they were just trying to make a name for themselves. For middle management, the costs of introducing a bad idea can far outweigh the costs of not introducing a good idea, and they become risk-averse.

Consider the impact of risk-aversion when the number of great ideas is a function of the total number of ideas. When it comes to innovation, the win/loss ratio is meaningless. All that matters is how many wins you have. And the number of wins varies with the number of tries. As Thomas Edison once said about his long journey toward a working light bulb, “I have not failed; I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

How many incomplete or unworkable ideas must one consider to find a real winner? Quite a few. Yet at what ratio of rejected ideas to accepted ones do people decide to keep their heads down and continue doing things the way they have always been done? Little wonder innovation is so hard to come by.

“Too Much of a Good Thing”
We cannot innovate with too few ideas, but 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.

In our next post we will share some ideas for overcoming these and other barriers to innovation.

Innovate Much?

Almost everyone we ask says they want to be innovative; and it is a well accepted concept that the best returns come to those who are first to market with a new product, process or solution.

It is a straightforward conclusion that a competitive advantage will be yours if you can provide better quality at lower costs, achieve breakthrough improvements, or if you create a management system or culture that constantly is clicking on all cylinders.

But how often do these things actually happen?

The Innovation Dilemma
Innovation is challenging for all of our organizations: large and small. Each new “frontier” is fraught with peril and risk… with each new idea inspiring both hope and worry. In fact, in our experience and research, we find that there is an “innovation dilemma” that makes innovation truly enigmatic:

  • Large organizations have more wherewithal to invest in systematic innovation, but smaller organizations seem more capable of capitalizing on innovative ideas.
  • Most innovations come not from visionaries at the top but from people closest to the work. Yet paradoxically, strong leadership and vision at the top of the organization are required to create an environment that fosters innovation and risk taking. Without strong leadership, organizations become bureaucratic and risk-averse.
  • Outsiders often have the most innovative ideas, but insiders’ know-how and buy-in are required to get them implemented.

So, with these challenges in mind, our next couple of posts will take a closer look at some of the barriers to innovation as well as ways to overcome them.

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.