For content related to creativity and innovation processes

You may have heard of Lean Manufacturing and Lean Design – how about Lean Living? The same principles from the factory floor can be applied right in you very own home. Whether it’s the laundry, taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, or handling the mail, you can improve the efficiency of your household by applying Lean principles as if your home were a factory.

Let’s study the laundry process as an example. First, dirty clothes are removed and stored in a buffer (hamper, floor, bedpost, closet). Then, dirty clothes are sorted (usually) into lights and darks or whites and colors. These sorted  piles act as buffers but are eventually transferred to the laundry station and washing and drying. These clothes are sometimes stored in the washing machine or dryer for extended periods of time so these are also used as another buffer or storage location for ‘inventory’. The clothes then folded at the dryer before being transferred back to another holding station in the form of a closet or dresser. Sometimes, the clothes are transferred to a separate folding station in front of the TV or to a bed if there is a lot of folding required. From the start of this process to the end, the clothes have been stored in up to 4 different buffers (closet, hamper, dryer, folding station) and handled as many times.

To improve the efficiency in the laundry process, there are several improvements that can be made.

  1. Eliminate the sorting process by having separate hampers for lights and darks.
  2. If you do an all-in-one laundry load, use your washer as a hamper and eliminate that storage step completely. Place dirty laundry directly into the washing machine.
  3. Fold clothes directly from the dryer and transfer immediately to closets or dressers
  4. For maximum efficiency, wear clothes directly from the dryer and eliminate the folding and storage steps entirely.

Many of the above principles can also be applied to dish washing. Instead of using the cupboard, sink, drying rack, and dishwasher as potential storage and subsequent handling/transferring locations, simple eliminate all of the above for your most frequently used items.  When you need a dish, take it from the dishwasher.  When you are finished with a dish, place it back in the dishwasher.  This eliminates the extra process steps of placing dirty dishes in the sink, for later later transfer to the dishwasher and back to a cupboard.

By now, you’re probably imagining many other applications for Lean Living around your home.  Just a few include:

Garbage – eliminate as many waste baskets as you can in the home.  The more waste baskets, the more garage you will generate and the more time you will spend sorting and getting rid of it. 

Mail – open it and action it immediately to avoid generating mail storage piles that will later need to be sorted and filed. In general, try to touch mail only once. The more times you have to handle a piece of mail, the less efficient your home will be. If you get a bill in the mail, you should open it, pay it, and file it immediately. Otherwise, you may put it in a pile, forget about it, find it later, wonder if it’s paid, pay it late, put it back in a pile, and finally sort it and file it.

Some think that Lean Living is just a sophisticated form of the bachelor lifestyle and you may be right!

Caterham and Splitwheel are teaming up to develop a new sports car designed online with user input.  The project will engage Caterham’s enthusiast owners and fan base or anyone else who wants to logon. Similar to efforts in other industries, the Caterham project attempts to design a car by leveraging a vast network of automotive engineering and design enthusiasts and professionals. This topic of distributed network product development can happen internally but also externally to a company like in Caterham’s small company case.  In some ways, this model is very close to Prahalad’s R=G priniciple for innovation or Professor Eric von Hippel’s Lead User innovation.  That is, use the power of the internet to solicit input from a global network of knowledge. Cars however are pretty traditional objects with limited room for revolutionary innovation so it will be interesting to see if anything significant comes of this…  At the very least, it’s a worthy attempt to open up the product development process of an automobile – one of the world’s more purposeful automobiles.

After more than 20 years working and studying in environments from traditional to radical, I’ve seen how ‘tried and true’ methods can succeed and then fail. The problem with regular, consistent, and routine processes is that they typically can’t handle a major external shock. These shocks can include game-changing global competition, revolutionary technology, economic disaster, etc.  So how can you build an organization that’s robust and resilient to change?  The answer lies in forcing change within an organization once the culture begins to ‘harden’.  The degree of change should be sufficient – enough to allow personnel to learn about the whole business, grow a wider skill base, and improve teamwork across functions – but not enough to weaken skill, leadership, and technological development and stability. This balance is critical as movement of employees should prevent the onset of organizational lock and the enable better co-operation and decision making.

Organizations that never change – can become stale, dull, boring, and mechanical.  This might be good for some businesses for some of the time. For example, if you are running a manufacturing organization, variation reduction and repeatable processes are critical.  But if you want creativity and innovation in product development or manufacturing too, if you want robustness and resiliency, then forcing internal organizational changes, is a good idea.  Often times, change for the sake of change is seen as wasteful and worthless.  Employees may dismiss the idea as the ‘flavor of the month’ or the latest management initiative.  But sometimes, a manager needs to recognize when organizational thinking has become too constrained, and procedures too rigid.  When decision making has grown too bureaucratic and organizations too political, think about a disruptive change to shake up the status quo and set a new course. The change, if done correctly, will expand the creative thinking and co-operation of your top managers and leaders.

Organizations are like trees.  They grow deep roots and long branches.  They keep on growing blocking out the light that new, young trees need to grow.  So think about a good pruning to remove the ‘dead wood’.

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Innovation is creativity – applied.  So how do you manage the application of creativity?  From my experience, it’s something you can easily start but becomes very difficult to maintain. Perhaps innovation is meant to come and go – to rise and fall. Maybe innovation should be as fleeting as the latest management initiative or buzzword.  Or maybe it can be an integral and perpetual part of your organization’s cultural fabric – woven throughout.  It can be structural, planned and predictable. Here are several techniques which may help you manage innovation vs. hoping for innovation…

1. Find a ‘good’ mix of people. They should represent diverse experiences, viewpoints, skills, and perspectives.  Find people who value this mix and are comfortable working in a diverse ecosystem of thought.  Find people who can thrive in an environment of constantly growing new ideas. Many people can’t function in this type of environment and will drag down the whole team so having the right mix of people is critical.  If you want to have routine, stable and expected outcomes, you need routine, stable and expected people.  If you want new, risky, and unexpected outcomes… you get the idea. This mix of people will change over time with a steady stream of new talent.  This fluid pool of people is key to ensuring things don’t stagnate and people are comfortable with a constantly changing environment.

2. Provide a stimulating environment. The more inputs from external sources you can bring, the better.  Allow all sorts of material to educate, inspire and provoke.  And keep it moving so things don’t grow stale and insulated. You might want to consider being separate from the main organization if there’s a risk of smothering or if the main organization isn’t ready for innovation yet.  Ultimately, you’ll need to plant the seeds of innovation in the mother organization though or risk having your innovation initiative fade away over time. There are successful example of ‘skunkworks’ operations or mainstream approaches like 3M.  Either way, the work environment needs to support the exploration of new ideas and allow for the risk of failure.  Combine that with the right people (point 1) who aren’t afraid of trying new things – and you’re starting to get close…

3. Remove the fear factor.  Provide a safe haven for creativity and risk taking. Reward people for taking risks and challenging the norm.  Reward people even if they fail.  Reward people for trying so others are encouraged to try too.  Once the organization sees innovation happening and people having fun and being rewarded – the momentum should be on your side.  I loved Professor Sutton’s comment of ‘innovate AND die’ because so much of what you will work on – will die!

4. Provide some formal structure and process to the work in order to avoid total chaos and anarchy.  These can be things such as flatter organizational structures, lack of formal job titles and classifications, documented brainstorming techniques, product develop processes that allow of multiple alternatives through a stage/gate system, etc. Imagine a formal product development process that manages projects with timed gates with defined deliverables.  But between these gates, people are free to dream, design, and develop the possibilities!

5. Challenge the team. Push employees and yes, even creative types, until they start to push you.  A manager’s ideal role is to restrain and balance a creative, driven, and persistent team. Hope that you will be in a position where you are having to hold back the creative energy on your team.  Hope that you will need to channel and control this energy instead of having to ignite and accelerate it. 

Once you have provided the people, tools, environment, framework, and challenge, your biggest challenge will be to keep the process going.  It’s so easy to set things up and after a huge burst of energy, things slow down and implode if you’re not careful.  That’s why you need to ‘manage’ innovation.  Each of the items above needs to be monitored and adjusted.  This could mean adding new people, mixing up the teams, changing the environment, modfiying the process, feeding teams with new insights and knowledge, etc.

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There are plenty of books about creativity and innovation but Stanford Professor Robert Sutton’s work caught my attention and before too long, I bought his 2002 book. You can find it on Amazon for around $2 so there’s no excuse if you are even a little interested!  In Weird Ideas That Work, Robert Sutton cites plenty of examples from various companies that used one of the below ideas.  Many of the stories are entertaining and provide interesting behind the scenes history of how some of the most interesting products of our generation came to be.  He has many quotable lines but the one I like best is: ‘If there was truth in advertising, the slogan ‘innovate of die’ would be replace with ‘innovate and die’.  Tried and true wins out over new and improved most of the time.’ But this book isn’t about replicating the expected.  It’s about the moving the needle with creative new products and services.  This unfortunately means a lots of failed ideas to sort through in order to find the good ones.  

So how does one go about coming up with great ideas – that’s where the list below comes in:

1. Hire ‘Slow Learners’ of the Organizational Code so people feel free to question the status quo and resist group thinking.

1.5. Hire people who make you uncomfortable, even those you dislike since they won’t be afraid to speak their mind and challenge your own thoughts.

2. Hire people you (probably) don’t need because you may not know what you really do need.

3. Use job interviews to get ideas, not to screen candidates since we usually hire people just like ourselves.

4. Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers so good ideas aren’t smothered.

5. Find some happy people and get them to fight in order to generate positive debate.

6. Reward success and failure, punish inaction so people aren’t afraid of trying and non succeeding – so people keep on trying!  The worst thing is not trying at all.  Henry Ford once said ‘ whether you think you can or you think you can’t, your’re right’.

7. Decide to do something that will probably fail, then convince yourself and everyone else that success is certain because sometimes you never know…unless you try.

8. Think of some ridiculous or impractical things to do, then plan to do them because these things may trigger new ideas.

9. Avoid, distract, and bore customers, critics, and anyone who just want to talk about money because money is usually a very short term motivator.

10. Don’t try to learn anything from people who seem to have solved the problems you face or you will never try anything.

11. Forget the past, especially your company’s successes because it’s too easy to get conservative and rely on the tried and true.

And after all the above, Sutton goes on to add 9 more guidelines for building companies where innovation is a way of life and not just a one-time event:

1. The best management is sometimes no management – the first priority of management is to do no harm!

2. Innovation means selling, not just inventing new ideas – without getting your idea approved by management, it doesn’t matter how good of an idea it is.

3. Innovation requires both flexibility and rigidity 

4. Incite and uncover discomfort – dislocate to innovate (my own saying)

5. Treat everything like a temporary condition – this helps people avoid getting stuck in a ‘rut’ by constantly changing their environment and the people they work with.  Sutton cites one study that found that the longer work groups are together the less work they do and the fewer new ideas they create.  The water cooler productivity goes up as people spend more of their time talking about their families, hobbies, etc.

6. Make the process as simple as possible – simple is always best

7. Innovation means living with some nasty drawbacks – innovate and die – since most ideas will fail,  you have to be prepared to face the consequences…

8. Learn to fail faster, not less often since the most creative people are usually the most productive people who have lots of failures – but more great ideas! 

9. Open is good, closed is bad – you need to be hearing, seeing, learning…

So the bottom line is that this is a great book if you are looking for ways to stimulate the creativity in yourself and your organization.  Sutton provides lots of real life examples of companies who have applied these ideas.  He also cautions against expecting too much and going too far with some of these concepts.  There is a time and place for each idea so you may not want to reward mistakes made on the production line for example! Sutton also addresses a very real problem with creative and innovative organizations – that they are not for everyone and often don’t last forever.

So here is the latest book from Prahalad and one with ‘Innovation’ in the title so this was a must read for the Ruminator.  The book’s main theme is driving co-created (between customer and company) value by leveraging global networks of employees, suppliers, and even customers.  The innovation is therefore not just a product, but how products will be/are being co-created for customers, one at a time.  Thus the book illustrates this concept as N=1.  That is, customers are no longer to be grouped, clustered or segmented along demographics, psychographics, and whatevergrahics – customer are now individuals who can help define the product or service they need/want.  The other half is R=G or Resource=Global.  In order to satisfy N=1, you need R=G.  That is, you need the design from one source, the low cost manufacturing from another source, and the value added Information Communications Technology (ICT) from another source – all potentially globally distributed.  Beyond the what of N=1 and R=G, the book goes on to explain the social and technical infrastructure required to support it – and how to transition an organization towards this vision of continuous innovation.

The concept of N=1 is defined as creating one ongoing experience at a time.  This also means a shift from traditional transaction based relationships where companies exchange products for one time payment to companies exchanging services for ongoing payments.  In the automotive world, a good example is http://www.zipcar.com where you can easily rent private transportation instead of buying a car outright.  By moving to a more service oriented value proposition, there is more opportunity to add ongoing value for the customer preventing your product from becoming a price only commodity.  Interestingly, the concept of co-creation or N=1 was quite popular in the 90’s but termed differently.  Then it was called Mass Customization in the automotive industry.  Some of the premium brands were able to succeed here (Mini for example) but many did not.  Currently, people still buy cars much the same way they did decades ago.  The book explains that this failure was due to insufficient supporting back end infrastructure (business processes and logistics) which seems quite true given the complexity of a large scale automotive business.

The concept of R=G seems on the surface to be just BPO or business process outsourcing.  But it is more than just farming out simple, repetitive tasks to low wage countries.  The benefits are growing as capabilities around the globe increase in sophistication.  For example, you could hire a firm to develop complex analytics – to better understand a customer based on buying patterns and other available data so you can send them targeted marketing messages. A current example is Amazon.com which tracks your buying and shopping habits and then configures what it shows you and emails you.  It is an automated personal shopper if you will. How many other websites have that level of sophistication?  You can also find someone to develop software that monitors changing employee skills, directing workload and training to individual employee based on experience – to drive totally transparent work processes so you know everything about a customer and can match consumer needs with employee skills. For both the employee and the customer, it seems like there’s less and less anonymity – and nowhere to hide…  The goal is to know exactly what the customer needs and when he needs it and then communicating it to him using the channel or representative most able to close the deal!

To enable the above, you need to evolve or develop the necessary Information and Communication Technology infrastructure for an N=1 and R=G world.  ICT needs to be integrated fully into management decisions vs. current popular thinking where IT is something to be cost reduced and outsourced.  This concept did open my eyes a little regarding IT.  I agree with the authors that if line managers better understood the capabilities that ICT can provide, much of the business processes we have today would be turned upside down! 

Prahalad and Krishnan sum it up best: ‘As we move to an N=1 and R=G world of value creation, we believe that competitive advantage will depend on a firm’s approach to business processes that can seamlessly connect consumers and resources and manage simultaneously the needs for efficiency and flexibility.  Firms will compete in providing a unique quality of experience in their products and services to each customer.  It will be a race to provide a unique customer experience at the lowest cost… every business process is enabled by the underlying ICT architecture.  It is the combination of such ICT platforms and business process capabilities aided by analytics that delivers contextual insights and cuts short management latency for action.’

With the U.S. economy struggling, this is certainly an appropriate book for the times.  I will try to summarize the overall book and then list some of the key points worth remembering and applying.

This book is a nice collection of short studies in change and turnaround strategy.  Each study reads like a short story illustrating various cases and competing strategies.   It’s a quick read that’s broken up into easily ‘consumable’ chunks.  Here are some excerpts and key points from the book:

Corporate transformations typically fall into one of two categories.  The first called Theory E based on economic value.  This strategy is focused on maximizing shareholder value, managing change top down, emphasizing structure and systems, planning and establishing programs, motivating through financial incentives, and using consultants to analyze problems and shape solutions.  The second is Theory O based on organizational capability.  Theory O emphasizes: developing organizational capabilities, encourage participation from the bottom up, building up corporate culture/behavior/attitude, experimenting and evolving, motivating through commitment, using consultants to support management.  Theory E is the ‘stop the bleeding and cut back to survive’ strategy while Theory O is the ‘rebuild for the future’ strategy.  Each seems to have their place depending on how bad off a company is.  The book suggests administering the correct doses or E and O varies over time based on company condition but that both are ultimately required for short term survival and longer term growth.

‘Catalytic Mechanisms produce desired results in unpredictable ways, distribute power for the benefit of the overall system (often to the great discomfort of those who traditionally hold power, have a sharp set of teeth, attract the right people and self-select the wrong people, produce an ongoing effect.’  One example in the book is the pre-signed resignation letter – so you know that if you don’t achieve your objectives, you and your boss already know the consequences. ‘Setting goals with real and immediate consequences and no fall back position provides public and powerful incentive to drive change.  Set BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) with long time frames, are clear, compelling and easy to understand, and connect to the core values of the organization.’

‘3 interventions that will restore companies to vital agility and then keep them in good health: incorporating employees fully into business challenges, leading from a different place, instilling mental discipline.  This will help avoid ‘Organization drift – in place of inquiry and experimentation, ideas get studied to death in hopes of ferreting out every possible weakness before making a commitment.  The precondition for action is certain knowledge.’

‘New approach to leadership – establish focus and urgency, maintain health levels of stress, and not feel compelled to come to the rescue with a lot of answers.  They learn to stay the course until guerrilla leaders at the lower levels come forward with initiatives that address the company’s shortcomings.’

There are several more cases but I think you get the picture. The book is a nice collection of easily digestible management techniques for handling change.  The diversity of thought is as refreshing as the variety of scenarios.  

A brainstorming session is like a real storm in many ways.  Things that have stood for many years are toppled over.  Everything around us is battered and left in pieces.  All is exposed, everything is vulnerable and nothing goes unscathed. And after the storm passes, we are hopefully left with a field of debris… or ideas!  

The next step is to gather all of this debris and start to cluster like ideas.  Group the ideas in logical clusters and then relate these back to your initial scenarios, trends, customer needs and wants, etc.  See which clusters of ideas are most compelling and relevant.  Once you’ve prioritized the clusters, then it’s time to develop each cluster into a more detailed concept of the product or service.  Instead of just a simple sketch or word description, it’s time to flesh out the idea and build it up into a living concept.

Start to question and test each maturing concept.  Try them out as prototypes, simulations, models.  Show them to customers and get their feedback.  By now, you’ve developed several strong proposals.  Continue to develop these as long as you can feasibility do so.  Delay having to choose until you absolutely must so you can keep testing and improving each alternative.  This will give some options because the market, the competition and the customer are constantly changing so you need to stay a little fluid. And once you’ve decided – get it to market FAST before things change again!