In Search of Innovation

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

To what degree is innovation today’s competitive edge?

Today, continual improvement and lean thinking – reducing process waste and providing superior product and service value – are the norm, whether we execute well in these areas or not. All leaders want to achieve these two things. Unfortunately, too many organizations are struggling to keep pace with, let alone be more innovative than, their global competition in these, and other, areas.

It’s the premise of the 1982 Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman book, In Search of Excellencebrought forward almost forty years, with a whole new focus … kind of. This time, it’s not just the Japanese auto industry that is unexpectedly leading the field within the automotive industry. Instead, the competition can come from anywhere and anyone, and it quickly overwhelm one’s strategic intent. How does your organization stay ahead of the competition? How effectively are those systems working?

Total Quality Management used to provide a competitive edge. Now, TQM represents a portion of the entry fee for the pursuit of excellence race. More and more companies are acquiring analytics tools and personnel, even though they are still learning to use them to an effective degree. The resultant data insights are giving us a foundation for systematically innovating work through intelligent risk taking.

Innovation is becoming a strategic currency of the future. Too many organizations have yet to identify the distinction between the performance bumps good ideas provide and the step change in process performance that come from true innovation. How innovative is your organization? Where have you learned to be innovative? What is innovation?

How necessary is innovation for future success?

During my twenty years as an Examiner with the national Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, I have watched innovation play a more and more prominent role in the Criteria. For too many years, I viewed this inclusion mostly as a ‘nice to have.’ You know, something that could make an organization better, but was not always necessary for sustained excellence. We are not all trying to be like Disney or Apple, are we?

Today, as 2020 fast approaches, I view an organization’s need for innovation differently. As I have watched computer software and hardware become easier and easier to use, I have also noticed how it is the people who are learning to use these tools differentlythat are seizing the day. Similarly, I have watched knock offs, reboots, and brand extensions lead to a dizzying array of SKU excess, and yet, certain products and services still seem to be able to significantly set themselves apart from their competitors. Innovation is out there.

We all have access to the same software and hardware tools – who can learn to use them creatively to innovate the processes they own? Being able to guide the successful, and consistent, implementation of innovative improvements will be a must for performance excellence and market leadership in the future. Before we can talk about HOW to become innovative, we need to try to get a better picture of the ‘end in mind.’ What is innovation?

What is innovation … really?

Innovation is easier to find than it is to define. Today, I hear the terms ‘improvement’ and ‘innovation’ being used interchangeably by too many aspiring high performers. When we do this, we only serve to dilute the meaning of, and potential for, true innovation.

Here are three possible definitions:

Malcolm Baldrige Excellence Framework definition – Making meaningful change to improve services, processes, or organizational effectiveness and create new value for stakeholders.

Wikipedia definition– Something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.

North Carolina State Industry Expansion Solutions definition: “Commercializing a meaningfully unique idea that a customer will pay for.”

Think of your own examples. What examples of real innovation can you think of? Was the chicken chalupa innovative? Was the pet rock innovative? Have you seen any innovations this year? What is the difference between invention (electricity distribution and turbine power, for example) and innovation as we know it today?

What recent examples of innovation have you seen in the worlds of sports and entertainment? One could argue that sports analytic applications to improve human performance are approaching innovative levels. Typically, as business sector competitiveness increase, so does the need for consistent and meaningful process, product, and service innovation. As with beauty, innovation is defined by the eye of the beholder – our customers.

What role does innovation play in your organization’s strategy mix?

As is often the case with process improvement, we often fail to engage enough of our people in creative and innovative improvement efforts. Most organizations pursue one or two innovative strategies a year. Others, like Disney, want to ‘plus up’ any work process that they can. Innovation is expected and planned for. What percentage of your strategic objectives include an innovation focus?

Make sure that the distinction between improvement strategies and innovation strategies is clear. The types of results expected to be produced should be significantly different from a goal setting perspective. More significant, and faster, rates of change should be expected for innovative strategies. You can’t achieve sustained ‘innovation’ results, however, until you develop the capacity for identifying true innovation. Build this capacity first, before building rapid ‘innovation implementation’ expectations.

How can you see if innovation is truly happening?

Look for step changes in performance. Expect the process control limits to tighten significantly as variation is innovatively reduced. The process average should shift dramatically in the desired direction following variation reduction, producing the step function in performance gain. The work environment or customer experience benefits from innovation application should look, sound, and feel noticeably different. The customer should be massively, and noticeably, ‘Wowed.’

To me, that is the bottom line. Does the new thing ‘wow’ you or not? When I see something that I find innovative, I feel the ‘wow.’ I feel it because what I experienced was not expected – it represented more than just a tweak of the norm. It all starts with going out and looking for innovative examples. What is the last truly innovative example of something you experienced?

How can we teach our people to be more creative and innovative?

Study Disney, Apple, and Pixar. Not all of their creations are innovative, but then again, innovation is in the eye of the beholder. If one does not get out much, they tend to think most new things are innovative … at first. Expose your people to new things – expand their mental models of both what people are doing already around the world, and what is possible.

Before we can teach people to be more innovative, we have to remove the barriers to creativity and innovation that exist in our workplaces. Questioning the norm should be expected, not discouraged. New ideas should be explored, instead of discounted, in meetings. A culture of fear in the workplace, or one that does not encourage diverse perspectives, will quickly shut down the potential for innovation. How we think, and why we think certain ways, needs to be explored as we raise our personal levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats concept was the first formal creativity training that I had. Roger von Oech’s Whack on the Side of the Head creativity book is one of the oldest on my business bookshelf. Embracing the Socrates’ quote “The only thing I know is that I don’t know it all” helped liberate my own mind, which I feel is requisite for out of the box thinking. Exploring how the brain works, and how to improve cognitive ergonomics, is key. Learning and practicing is the short “How to” answer for getting started on one’s creativity and innovation skill development journey.

Study the different theories about developing a capacity for creativity that exist. Study the people and organizations who have been recognized for being truly innovative, and then form your own opinion. Exercise your mind to help develop all eight of your intelligences, and both the left and right sides of your brain. You can only be as innovative as your mind will allow you to be, and you have to plan for it.

Who needs to learn and practice creativity and innovation tools?

I think all staff need some exposure to the strategies associated with learning to think more creatively and innovatively. In this day and age, it would be for our own good. These two skill sets may represent 21stcentury self-preservation tools. Folks on Research and Development teams might warrant more in-depth I&C (Innovation and Creativity) training, but all processes may benefit from being radically improved at least once in a while.

It all depends on your goals. What types of value do you want to provide to your internal and external customers? How fast do you want to improve? How quickly would you like to put a gap between you and the competition, in which performance areas, and at what rate of growth? To ‘go faster’, you need human power. You need to expand the capability and capacity of your workforce for producing innovation.

Tom Peters is still thinking creatively and innovatively. You can follow him on Twitter (@Tom_Peters), and explore some of his ‘out of the box’ thoughts in his recent book Little Big Things. Tom will make you think, and by thinking, you are making the first step towards thinking differently.

More Innovation Thoughts to Come in the Future

Stayed tuned for my next two posts in my three-post series on the innovation topic. In my next post, I share some best practices for generating, capturing, and triaging potential ideas, best practices, and yes, even innovations from across your workforce.

Also, be on the alert for my high-performance podcasts, which I will start sharing early in 2019.

Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems  

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