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business, innovation, lean thinking

Innovation for the Sake of Innovation

Our whole company is founded on the principle that there is something very different that happens with one person, one computer.” – Steve Jobs

The May issue of Fortune Magazine included an article called, “Startups . . . Inside Giant Companies,” which presented the latest approach companies are using to drive innovation.  The article included examples of how companies like Coca-Cola, GE, and Tyco have implemented programs to drive innovation back into the organization.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help thinking here we go again – another management fad destined for the six-sigma scrap heap.

The author highlighted the systems companies are using to make their cultures more innovative by setting up internal startups to bring new ideas to market and rewarding people for new product ideas.  The approaches used by the companies include idea pitch parties, internal venture capital groups, and growth boards that award funding to the best ideas.  It was noted, for example, that GE now has 3,500 of its 300,000 employees now involved in the process and expects to increase that number to 35,000 by year-end.

Innovation Doesn’t Guarantee Success

The success of companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon has created an infatuation with innovation to the point of being distracting and detrimental to running the business.  Innovation is absolutely critical to the success of an organization, but it must be focused on improving customer service and addressing problems that interfere with achieving the vision.  Uncontrolled innovation leads to very creative ideas that distract people and result in square-peg results.

The six-sigma thoughts that kept popping into my head while reading the article were related to the black-belt who grabs the glory for “solving” a problem while those who participated in the effort – and did much of the work – get little or no recognition.  Those dealing with the problems on a daily basis are also shown by management that they are not respected enough to be taught how to solve problems on their own and that it takes a special person to stay focused and find solutions.

I can’t help but think that the same thing will occur within many of the companies listed in the article.  As the people with the ideas are applauded and rewarded by leaders, those left running the business – and dealing with numerous problems on a daily basis – are largely ignored and shown that what they do is not important.

Another potential distraction caused by the heavy focus the referenced companies place on innovation projects is that, by touting the number of innovation projects, people and teams will start putting forth weak and unclear ideas just to raise the numbers.  If company executives focus on the numbers, team leaders will start padding the numbers to make themselves look better.

Aligned Innovation

What truly innovative companies understand is that innovation must be ultimately focused on serving the customer.  On the production line, Toyota removes the doors after painting because it allows team members to move in and out of the car quickly and easily and keep up with takt time.  This is an innovation that addressed a problem of keeping up with increased demand.

Deming Electric Light QuoteWhen it comes to new product development, Apple seems to understand this concept better than pretty much anyone.  Following the purpose of one person, one computer, Apple seeks to understand its customers at a fundamental level rather than merely a product level.  Customers generally do not know what is possible, so merely asking them what they want will lead to information about the products and services they are currently receiving.  If asked what they wanted with personal computing, though, customers would have probably responded in terms of their laptops.  Focusing on the one person, one computer purpose, though, Apple dug deeper to understand problems people have every day that could be addressed by having a computer with them everywhere they go.

Whether process or product innovations, the key is to understand how they address problems for the internal or external customer.  Cool ideas mean nothing unless they help the address problems.  When the effort is controlled by focusing it on the company’s purpose, the creativity of people can be released in the right direction resulting in far greater success with new products, processes, and services.

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About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.

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