I am currently focused on strengthening the manufacturing sector. Increasingly I am speaking at meetings, events, in boardrooms and in front of post graduate students about innovation. In this more engineering-minded world people are asking me the whole time for a few tips to get innovation going.
- “How about an idea box?”
- “How about canvassing ideas for a new product design from our customers?”
- “How about rewarding our engineers with a profit share if they design a new product?”
The truth is, many manufacturing enterprises, especially the smaller ones, are too sliced into specific functions. Design designs, manufacturing manufacturers, salesmen become creative about delivery dates, and accounts, well, they count costs. This hierarchy makes information flows about potential improvements, new market opportunities and some old tricks that could become useful again very difficult. The cost of coordination in these enterprises are very high. In these silo-based organizations the costs of finding information, new signals and new ideas from outside the organizations is extremely high, and in general, these organizations struggle to learn.
A second problem is that most smaller manufacturers are mainly focused on product innovation. Which does not mean being focused on knocking the socks of their customers with frequent improvements or brilliant designs. Unfortunately many of the more traditional manufacturers are focused on how to get the price down or how to sort our quality issues. Which is actually a kind of process improvement, except that it is a very narrow kind of process improvement. The challenge with this incremental approach is that you can at most only grow and develop as fast as your customers can articulate what they want. Competitors or substitutes can also upset market relations by coming up with novel solutions that an incremental approach struggles to generate.
A third problem is that innovation is only done when customers demand it. It is passive. It lives in bursts to get things right, and then it settles into a problem solving mode until a next customer makes some unreasonable demands.
What many manufacturers lack, especially those in the more traditional sectors like metals and engineering, is a focused effort by top management to build an innovative culture that is actively trying to find product, process and business model improvements. It must be focused internally, in order to constantly rethink the business and its core processes, and it must be focused externally, to what customers and competitors are doing. The really good companies are also looking beyond current markets and competitors to new technologies and how they might shape the future.
This far I have addressed a business perspective. But research organizations, technology transfer centres and industry support centres can also get trapped in a low innovation culture.
I am now working with a few industry groups and research and technology centres to find out how these organizations can move beyond “catching up” and responding to change towards anticipating what is next. It sounds really simple, but by simply mobilizing more and more people in the organization to start searching for what’s next has already yielded amazing results in a short time. Maybe I am over optimistic, but already I can sense the innovation cultures change in these organizations as more and more people become involved in searching for possibility.
A quote that is attributed to William Gibson goes “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. Step one is get more people involved in searching for what is already here, it is just not recognized inside the firm or industry.