Category Archives: Innovation

Faster innovation!

close the barn door

Recent posts have focused on innovation and problem solving, which requires knowledge, critical thinking, and, in many cases, creative thinking.

One interesting example of how we might apply creativity when solving problem is called the Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving.

The concept dates back to the 1950’s and Russian innovator G.S. Altshuller’s belief that innovation processes could be improved and accelerated 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.

It’s About Time!
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.

An uncommon solution to a common business problem

SMIT goals

As noted in our previous post, to pull significantly ahead of competitors an organization must make process innovations in addition to standard improvements.

Continuing with that theme, it is important to recognize that in order to achieve a breakthrough process innovation, a leader must make a powerful case that the breakthrough goal is truly necessary; and then the leader must follow that up with performance targets that are impossible to reach by conventional methods.

People almost always stop looking for an idea once they already have one. Even a flawed or inadequate idea can look good when it is the only one you’ve come up with.

But as French philosopher and journalist Émile Chartier (Alain) said, “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have!”

When we “fall in love with our first idea,” rationalizations as to why it is still ‘better than the alternative’ come easily. Furthermore, all the natural incentives in most organizations work against making a big innovative change. Big ideas are harder to think of; they are harder to sell, and they are risky or scary to implement. Process innovations simply do not happen unless the situation or an influential leader demands an innovation that is significantly and measurably better.

The Common Problem: SMART v. SMIT
Unfortunately, most of us don’t like to set our teams or ourselves a goal that could lead to failure, so we ask for goals we think can be met.

In fact, managers are taught to develop SMART goals, and ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic’ are at the heart of SMART goals. Yet, achievable and realistic goals never lead to innovation.

If the target is less than 20% improvement, most of the time people will tend to try to get there by doing the same things faster and harder or skipping steps without completely eliminating the need for those steps. These ‘stretch goals’ lead to disappointment or unintended consequences far more often than true innovation.

To inspire innovation, the goal must be out of reach via conventional thinking. Goals must be “SMIT” (specific, measurable, impossible, and timely) to spur innovation.

The Uncommon Solution
Innovation follows the necessity to invent, so a critical ingredient to process innovation is a leader with the courage, conviction, insight, and imagination to persuasively communicate the necessity for a game changing breakthrough process innovation.

Innovation beyond improvement


The competitive environment never, ever gets easier. Just to stay as competitive as last year, we need to execute better this year.

In many cases, Continuous Improvement is necessary just to stay in the game! And to pull significantly ahead, an organization must make process innovations in addition to improvements.

Defining the Term
A process innovation is one that has the potential to change the competitive landscape. When an organization implements a process innovation, they produce, modify, and/or adopt a new value-added product, service, process, management system, or market.

More simply stated, a process innovation significantly changes at least one of the following aspects of a process or service:

  • Speed
  • Cost
  • Quality

For example, 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%.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for numerous process innovations as well; supermarkets instituted curb site pick-up, restaurants found ways to expand outdoor seating and delivery, businesses of all types quickly shifted into “remote” working modes, and the availability of fast or same day delivery of goods bought on-line has been significantly increased.

Operating Assumptions?
Every business operates under the constraints of operating assumptions, and each of the above-listed process innovations challenged and overcame powerful assumptions. People may not even think of them as assumptions, but rather as facts-of-life, because they are so ingrained in our organization’s paradigm.

But to achieve a significant breakthrough, we have to identify and overcome a significant operating assumption and rewrite the rules of the game.

Easier said than done, of course. We all want to achieve a process innovation that will remake the competitive landscape in our favor. And yet, it is hard enough to get our teams to accomplish continuous improvements when they are running hard just keeping up with the usual deliverables.

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.

Imagine What Could Be!


Recent posts have focused on various aspects of defining problems or identifying waste. When engaged in these activities it can sometimes be difficult to separate the status-quo from problems or waste… in other words, we can become so accustomed to a process or method that we fail to recognize opportunities to improve it.

A popular definition of waste, and one we’ve used frequently over the years, is “the difference between the way things are and the way things could or should be if everything were right.”

Envisioning this ideal can be challenging, and we’ve found that “Imagineering” is an ideal process for making this type of determination, for goal-setting, developing the best project plans, and for putting improvement ideas into practice.

As you may know, Imagineering was popularized in the 1940s by Alcoa to describe its blending of imagination and engineering. It was also adopted by Walt Disney a decade later, and is often referenced as a means of achieving “blue sky speculation,” a process where people generate ideas with no limitations…, where they try to achieve what “could or should be.”

Over the years we have consistently found that well-executed Imagineering workshops help people unleash their organization’s true potential and achieve breakthrough improvements. Much more than traditional or simple brainstorming, the process starts with a strategic approach for imagining perfection, and ends with engineering this ideal state back down to earth.

You might consider the use of Imagineering as a means of generating innovative ideas and applying the principles to set goals and achieve breakthrough improvements.

If this concept resonates with you, then you might also find this short video of interest: “The Way Things Could or Should Be.

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?

How to Design a Poka-Yoke

Our previous post defined a “poka-yoke” as a means of mistake-proofing a product or process.

The question is, how might we best go about designing these fail-safes?

To begin, poka-yokes must be devised to prevent a particular type of error, which is why it is so important to thoroughly study the problem, the process, and the root causes. Once you have all the facts and data about what is going wrong most often, in what way, and why, you can set your collective creative minds to designing a poka-yoke that most effectively and efficiently prevents the most frequent human errors or omissions.

Yet a simple and powerful poka-yoke is almost never the first solution a team comes up with.

The best ideas take creativity, collaboration, and the time to press on past the weaker solutions that come to mind first. Most often, the first idea  ― which, as noted above, almost never represents the best solution ― is one of the following:

  1. Ask people to be more careful
  2. Ask management to send an email telling people to be more careful
  3. Schedule a training session in which people are instructed to, yes, be more careful

These solutions might help for a little while, but improvement is fleeting.

Instead, armed with a thorough understanding of the process and how things go wrong, you must keep brainstorming ideas until you can find a way to inexpensively make it much easier to do the work right or at least automatically alert a person when he or she has just made the mistake.

In addition, people often progress through weaker controls to progressively more effective poka-yokes. For example, one garage progressed from a weak control ― a warning sign stating ‘No vehicles higher over 7 feet high’ ― to a bar at 7 feet, which when pressed set off flashing lights and warning sounds. Eventually, they had an inexpensive laser beam which when broken would trigger an arm to fall, blocking entry. No more difficult extraction of vehicles that exceeded the height limit!

Learning from the Marketplace to Promote Internal Change

As noted in our previous post, “knowledge” is one of the most powerful change agents, and all sorts of learning can become a catalyst for change.

One very effective source of knowledge is our marketplace, which includes our customers and competitors.

By learning from the market we can often see possibilities for innovation that have been overlooked. Of course learning is only the first step, as the gained knowledge must then be applied.

For example, in the early 1980’s, Toyota believed that to grow their sales in the United States they would need to have manufacturing facilities here, but they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So they entered into a joint venture with General Motors, opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States.

After they achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to successfully open plants in a number of U.S. locations, applying their knowledge each time.  While General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high quality products at low cost, and while many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.

Learning from the customer can also open our eyes to new possibilities. But it’s important to recognize that customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why.

So making the extra effort to go beyond just “what they need” to gain knowledge is critically-important. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context.

What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? And consider that they don’t ask because they don’t know enough about your process
to suggest it, and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it!

Similarly, knowledge of the competition can produce a greater sense of urgency or a heightened “willingness” to change, and in many cases can give us better insights as to the best ways to satisfy our customers and achieve a competitive edge.

Leading a Culture of Innovation & Continuous Improvement

Tying recent posts together, and spring-boarding off a good comment shared about “the biggest waste lying in the ranks of poor leadership,” this post focuses on the critically-important role leadership plays in developing and sustaining a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

Simply stated, given the challenges of creating a consistently effective innovative organization, nothing is more important
than leadership.

It requires powerful leadership skills to empower and unleash an organization’s creative talents and energy. In an organization without strong leadership, inspiring and empowering people to contribute their ideas innovations will be scarce. An innovative culture is not the default position — it must be carefully created.

But empowerment, important as that is, is nowhere near enough.

Leadership must also create a challenging vision around which to rally the organization’s creative energies. This vision must be grounded in a deep understanding of the market and of the daily struggles of the people who make up that market.

Understanding the market is much easier for a small company where everyone deals with real customer needs every day. But as organizations grow, they expand like a balloon — more mass and less surface area. The surface area has the chance to get close to the external customer’s needs.

So, as a company grows, leadership must maintain or create a mechanism that will ensure that an  understanding of the customer’s needs can penetrate beyond the surface area into the heart of the organization. The same is true of internal functions that work together like a chain of customers. As organizations grow, departments grow and they too develop ‘more mass and less surface area’ — creating the familiar silo phenomenon.

In addition, leadership of innovative organizations must, without stifling creativity, challenge the organization’s efforts with the necessary, market-driven constraints. Without the right constraints,
empowerment cannot succeed. It is too easy to become satisfied with a creative idea before it has been developed into something really workable. An organization that tries to empower innovation without creating the right market-driven constraints, can easily suffocate in an avalanche of incomplete or impractical ideas.
Because they are not fully developed to address the real, but perhaps unspecified, constraints, the ideas cannot be implemented and quite soon people cease to feel empowered.

This is a tall order, and it becomes easy to see why innovation isn’t easier to come by despite all the human talent and energy brought to bear. But creating an innovative culture is, in itself, a creative challenge. By increasing our understanding of the challenges and constraints, we increase our ability to focus our own leadership talents on the right things to make it happen.

Silo Treatment?

Bill Conway always said, “The biggest waste is found in the interfaces and interstices.”

Or, said another way, the waste is found at the seams of the value stream as it crosses  different organizational boundaries, which are often referenced as the “silos” in which many of us work.

Some time ago, we were involved in an exercise in streamlining office work and had set up an order processing operation that had lots of obvious waste analogous to the sort commonly found in office processes. The simulation was conducted a number of times, usually in one large room with different departments in different areas of the room.

Participants were always able to identify large amounts of waste, because it really is much easier to see waste in someone else’s process than in one’s own. The simulation helped participants to see the waste and then to draw analogies to opportunities they had overlooked in their own work. So light bulbs would go on and participants would generally be able to redesign the process to increase throughput up to ten-fold!

Then one day, the training facilities were different: no large room, just one mid-sized room and a number of breakout rooms.

Even more realistic, we all thought… the Credit Checkers were in one room, the Order Processors in another, and so on.

But when we reconvened to debrief, everyone seemed oddly comfortable with the whole process they had been executing. They identified little things they could improve within their small group, but they missed the elephant in the room — perhaps because it was in next room, or rather the hallway where no one owned it.

As Bill always said, the big waste was in the “interfaces and interstices… and, as noted in a previous post,  “It is easiest to think outside the box, when you are from outside the box” (or silo!).

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.