Category Archives: Innovation

Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture

The best indicator of successfully developing a continuous improvement culture is your ability to engage people. Because “engagement is all about participation,” according to communications consultant David Sibbet, it is critical that you create a way for people to consistently participate in improvement activities. Creating an annual kaizen event calendar and rotating people on and off improvement teams won’t cut it. You must design a process for individuals to embed change as part of their daily work.

What works best are employee-driven idea systems that focus on small ideas but cultivate them every day in a visual, public way. Not because the ideas themselves are earth-shattering, but because the ability to get them done quickly and demonstrate continued progress is key to motivating people to think big, take risks, and work together to create positive change.

Unfortunately, most leaders have a difficult time believing that thousands of small “unmeasurable ideas” will have any meaningful effect on key financial metrics. As a result, most idea systems quickly die on the vine as leaders create layers of bureaucracy to manage the ideas, and complex return on investment (ROI) criteria to rank each idea in the search of the illusive “game-changing suggestion.” However, when leaders set a clear objective and challenge teams to rapidly implement any idea important to accomplishing their goal, then the true power of creativity and collective energy can be released.

Take an example from the University of Washington. The Grants and Contracts Accounting Group is a 25-member team responsible for the setup, invoicing, reporting, and closing of more than $1.15 billion in annual research grants. When I started working with the team, complex grants could take upwards of 673 days to finalize the outstanding invoices, complete the reporting, and close out the grant in compliance with sponsor requirements. In addition, due to the 228-percent growth in research grants and budget cuts, a backlog of 5,478 grants had developed.

Faced with no new resources and the audacious challenge to eliminate the backlog and cut the time to close to 120 days, we engaged the team and installed a system of daily process improvement. Driven by the goal to identify and solve problems in real time, the team used workflow leveling, pacing, visual controls, and idea pads to capture every roadblock the team encountered. At the end of each day, problems were reviewed and analyzed, and improvements were made so the impact of the change could be viewed the next day. While some of the ideas took multiple days to investigate and implement, the vast majority of the ideas were small, seemingly insignificant changes that could be completed by the next day.

The result? At the end of eight months, the team had eliminated 82 percent of the backlog and increased the number of budgets closed per week by 733 percent. By using a simple daily process to identify and implement small ideas, the team has averaged 4.4 new ideas per person per month and implemented 78 percent of them. It has done this without running kaizen events and without the assistance of internal lean specialists. In fact, change is happening so rapidly that documenting the effect of the ideas has become the enviable problem the team is working to address (at the request of the University).

So why do thousands of small ideas beat a few big ideas every time? Here are a few of the unseen benefits of embracing a “smaller is better” approach to process improvement:

Motivation. Seeing progress is one of the single greatest sources of intrinsic motivation. By documenting and allowing people to see the ideas they have suggested and implemented, and how their ideas have contributed to the larger organizational goals, you give them a simple, consistent, and visual mechanism to see their progress.

Development. By documenting all the small ideas, you create “teachable moments” where you can use actual ideas suggested and implemented to teach others what constitutes good ideas as well as what making progress toward goals each day looks like.

Recognition. By making your idea system visual, it allows you to create a very public method of recognizing all the incremental improvements people are suggesting and implementing. As peer-to-peer recognition is one of the most powerful motivators, the visual element allows teams to celebrate one another and each member’s contribution to their team and the organization.

Sharing. Simple visual idea systems encourage frequent yokoten(knowledge sharing) as each idea is captured, discussed, implemented, and recognized. Unexpected benefits occur during this process as each team member is exposed to the ideas of others and challenged to find opportunities where improvements can be applied in other areas.

Creating an engaged culture isn’t about challenging people to identify and implement ideas that revolutionize the organization. As soon as leaders start thinking the key to change is big ideas, they create systems that seek to identify the best ideas and kill those which do not provide a sufficient ROI. Rather than engage teams, these systems serve as a filter to curb people’s creativity and puts blinders on their “improvement eyes.” More important, by conditioning people to filter their ideas, leaders limit the organization’s ability to tap into the motivational engine that lies within in every team member.

The key to creating a world-class idea system is spending less time asking the question, “Is this a good idea?” and more time building a system where progress is measured by the implementation of thousands of seemingly inconsequential ideas. Leaders’ primary mission is to create an environment that allows all team members to make progress every day and gives them a way to see the progress they are making. Only then will people fully engage and be motivated to change the organization, one idea at a time.

In the end, if you want teams to engage in change, be accountable for their actions, and take ownership of the outcomes, they need to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making in the organization. Only when team members are clear about the objectives and able to confidently say, “I am better today than I was yesterday” will the organization begin to tap into their limitless ability to help make themselves, their team, and their process great.


Learning Systems Design from Dead Poets

“Why do I stand up here?  I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.  You see the world looks very different up here … Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way.  Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.” – Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Getting teams to look at processes in a different way can be both one of the biggest challenges and fruitful exercises a leader can undertake.  Merely enabling people to see their job from a fresh perspective can lead to new insights and generate a rush of improvement ideas.  Taichii Ohno (founder of the Toyota Production System) was famous for requiring leaders to spend hours standing in a circle on the shop floor and observing a process until the waste “revealed itself.”  The problem with getting people to look at their process and see the opportunities for improvement is that our brains are hardwired to see the world the way we want to see it rather than the way it is.  So in order to get teams to see their process differently, you often need to force a change in scenery.

That being said, the following are two simple techniques we use when redesigning systems that challenge teams to look at their process from a new perspective and expose problems in real time:

Break the work – “artificially” breaking up the work can be very effective way to increase collaboration by adding immediate feedback loops.  As teams redistribute work and struggle to meet their goals, the increased interactions generate insightful questions regarding individual behaviors, standard work requirements, and single points of failure in the system.

Rotate the work – frequently rotating the work can be helpful in two ways.  First, changing roles in a process allows the team to systematically and frequently “bring in a fresh set of eyes.”  Second, forcing the team to break down the job into its simplest elements and cross train helps drive innovation as they must question every detail and look for ways to translate and train the work more effectively.

Finally, in addition to designing systems which expose new opportunities, remember the power of setting a goal for ideas.  Paul Cook once noted that “To be an innovative organization, you have to ask for innovation.  You assemble a group of talented people who are eager to do new things and put them in an environment where innovation is expected.  It’s that simple…”  When Robin Williams challenges his students to think differently, he does not merely suggest everyone stand on the desk and look at the world from a different perspective…he makes everyone get out of their seat and physically stand on his desk.  The same is true for innovation.  Don’t beat around the bush with your goal for getting new ideas.  Contrary to what some leaders believe, setting challenging expectations for the number of new ideas generated and implemented can lead to increased motivation, fresh insights and improved business results.


Show Up and Start Anywhere

“If they had to wait for inspiration or a good idea, few scenes would ever begin.  Players step onto the stage because that is where things are happening.  They just show up.  Then the magic begins.” – Patricia Ryan Madson

We make change too complicated.  We seem to find endless reasons to talk more and do less; waiting for the perfect answer rather than experimenting to develop the right answer.  The secret to great results is focusing on a compelling vision, adapting to changing situations, and above all, taking action.  80% of the battle is just showing up and putting yourself in a position to succeed.

Improv actors understand this principle.  They live in a world of real time creation and creativity, where success depends on taking risk, being present and accepting all offers.  As opposed to most leaders, improv actors spend more time working on adapting to a fluid environment than trying to control their environment through better scripts.  They understand that in order to discover new lands you must be willing to loose site of the shore and embrace the unknown.  In the process however, improv actors also experience the joy of discovery and create unique works of art each time they step on stage.

So how can we apply the principles of improvisational theatre to our change process?

First, don’t wait for million dollar ideas.  There aren’t many million dollar ideas out there to be found and you will pass up millions of dollars in good ideas while you search in vain for the big one.  Second, don’t overanalyze the obvious.  Far too often we give ourselves analysis paralysis by making more out of the situation than is warranted.  Improving a process is not that complicated, so don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be.  “Sometimes a duck is just a duck.”  Finally, don’t worry too much about where to start .  When faced with the task of creating a culture of continuous improvement, trying to find the “right starting point” only wastes time.  Begin with the most obvious need and focus your energy on where you can take action now.  Once you take action and get your first improvements underway, you will have a more realistic perspective of both the problems and the possible solutions.

Above all, rather than worry about what might be, concentrate on what is and liberate yourself from the fear of the unknown.  Focus on developing your current ideas into great ideas through experimentation, rather than waiting to think of “great ideas.”  Once you take action and engage people through active participation, the path to creating the culture you want will begin to reveal itself.

Cracking the Code on Engagement

“An experienced code breaker will tell you that in order to figure out what the symbols in a code mean, it is essential to be able to play with them…to rearrange them at will.” – Gero Miesenboeck

The Rosslyn Chapel was founded by William Sinclair in Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland in the mid-15th century.  The chapel stands on fourteen pillars, which form an arcade of twelve pointed arches on three sides of the nave and its architecture is considered to be some of the finest architecture in Scotland.  Among Rosslyn’s intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes protruding from the pillars and arches with geometric patterns on them.  While no interpretation of the patterns has proven conclusive, Tommy and Stuart Mitchell believe the symbols represent pitches and tones which reveal a melodic and harmonic progression.  Thomas Mitchell combined the code breaking skills he learned during the Korean War with a lifetime knowledge of classical music to unlock a piece of music hidden in the chapel’s arches.  After 27 years of study and research using cymatics (a musical system in which patterns are formed by sound waves at specific pitches), the father and son team produced a tone which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet.

Mitchell’s success required dedication, careful analysis, and a bit of luck.  Most of all, it required Mitchell and his son to experiment with sand, sound, pitch and patterns.  We too must be prepared to play with a variety of tools and techniques if we are to discover the secrets of motivating people to participate in change.  Like all code breakers, our goal is to identify a “pattern of right behaviors” which will enable leaders to consistently inspire and engage those they lead.  In our attempt to identify the right behaviors, there are three additional skills we need to successfully crack the engagement code.

First, you need patience and perseverance.  Recognizing the pattern of right behaviors takes time and can often feel as if you are making little progress as your brain wrestles with seemingly contradictory information and attempts to rearrange the inputs to identify the pattern.  You may also need to retrace your steps and/or start over when one line of investigation ends with little to no results.

Second, you must have a strong familiarity with the language in which the code is written, so be prepared to become a student of human behavior and spend time in the trenches working with teams implementing change.

Finally, as you begin to learn the language of human behavior, you need to understand its inherent rules.  All languages (including human behavior) contain redundant qualities and patterns of frequency.  Learning how to read these patterns and recognize redundant behavioral trends can help you understand the messages being conveyed and the reasons behind them.

Code breakers approach complex problems with a mix of experience, ingenuity and curiosity.  Blending their knowledge of the code’s language with a structured approach to experimentation, code breakers identify the underlying pattern to crack the code.   By using a similar approach to the problem of engagement, we may finally be able to “crack the code” of motivating people to change their behavior.

Creative Collaboration at Pixar

A couple of years ago, the Harvard Business Review published an article on creativity and collaboration at Pixar.  According to Ed Catmull (President of Pixar), the trick to fostering collective creativity is three fold: place creative authority for product development firmly in the hands of the project leaders, dismantle the natural barriers that divide disciplines, and build a culture that encourage people to share their work-in-process and support one another as peers.  A key to creating this culture is implementing processes that drive collaborative behaviors every day.  The article defined two simple, but effective processes which form the foundation of Pixar’s innovation process: the use of daily reviews and the creation of a postmortem process.  Let’s take a brief look at each of these processes to see how they work to drive right behaviors.

The daily review process is relatively simple, but powerful in its effectiveness.  At the end of each day, everyone involved in the creative process shows the progress of their work to the entire team.  Everyone is encouraged to comment on the material presented, but the director makes the final call with respect to the work and the next steps.  By forcing a collaborative approach to presenting incomplete work at the end of each day, people get past the embarrassment of an unfinished product and are more creative as a results.  In addition, the group interaction allows everyone to learn from and inspire each other.  Finally, by establishing a time for the team to meet each day, the director saves time and reduces the opportunities for error by communicating to the entire team at once.

The power of postmortems is forcing the team to take moments for deep reflection and share lessons learned which can be applied to future projects.  At the core of the postmortem process is time spent asking the team to list the top five things they would do again as well as the top five things to avoid.  To keep this process fresh and engaging, the team varies the manner in which they conduct the postmortem each time.  In addition to the top five review, the team employs performance data with which to analyze opportunities for improvement.  Among other data the team collects is the lead time to completion for each activity as well as the number of times something is reworked.  These data points provide both a delivery and quality measure which can be compared against predetermined goals.

At the core of Pixar’s philosophy is a belief that driving innovation depends on finding the right people and putting them in an environment which encourages daily collaboration and taking risk to accomplish great things.  Betting big on people, giving them enormous leeway to create, and providing them with timely, honest feedback sets teams up for success and enables Pixar to consistently turn out award winning products.

The Power of an “Impossible” Goal

A $2,000 car?  The Chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation said it was impossible…but, that didn’t deter Ratan Tata.  Motivated by a passion for meeting the needs of India’s impoverished people, the Chairman of Tata Motors assembled a five person engineering team (with an average age of 27) and launched a four year journey which began with an audacious goal and ended with a paradigm shift in the auto industry.

Rather than begin with a set of design criteria for the team to use when approaching the problem, Tata gave them an impossible goal: build a car for $2,000.  In fact, the cost target was the only fixed point with which the team was forced to work.  In every other aspect of the project, the team was challenged to “question the unquestionable” and utilize an open innovation model which considered ideas from anywhere and everywhere.

The audaciousness of the goal combined with the freedom to “break the rules” led to many industry leading innovations.  The Nano is the first time a 2 cylinder gas engine has been used in a car with a single balancer shaft.  Adhesives have replaced all rivets and mechanisms from a helicopter were used when designing the seats and windows.  The car’s 9 foot frame is 8% shorter than other compact cars, while providing the passengers 21% more interior room.   In addition, each part in the car serves a dual function, resulting in 1/2 the total number of parts as a normal car.  Finally, the team also had to think about its supply chain differently.  The Nano was designed in partnership with Tato’s vendors and suppliers, 100 vendors were co-located adjacent to the plant and the company developed a new business model for dealerships which slashed distribution costs.

The development of the Tata Nano is one of many examples of leaders inspiring teams to achieve seemingly impossible goals in the midst of tight deadlines.  As with each of these game changing innovations, it was Tata’s unwavering commitment to an impossible goal combined with a freedom to experiment by the engineering team which caused a shift in the paradigm.  All to often however, leaders take an opposite approach when trying to drive innovation.  The goals set are far too safe to force a new way of thinking and rather then giving teams latitude to experiment, they script their actions through detailed charters, procedures and return on investment criteria.  The combination of weak goals and stifling process boundaries kills creativity and ensures mediocrity.

If you want to experience the power of a inspired team who believes there is nothing they can’t accomplish, set an impossible goal and give your people the autonomy to discover radically new solutions to some of your toughest challenges.

“Impossible is nothing.” – Adidas

Discovery-Based Implementation

In his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey believed that discovery-based education yielded the best learning.  By allowing learners to connect with information through participation and experimentation they engaged more fully and identified new ideas and conceptual patterns through the interaction.  In addition, the brain activity is heightened when the information presented is slightly ambiguous rather than explicit.  By leaving “gaps” in the information and some “fuzziness” in the details, you encourage the learner to use their brains to fill in the blanks.  By doing this, their creativity and imagination is sparked and the learner is better able to catalogue and retrieve information easily in the future.

I believe the same principles apply when engaging people in process improvement.  If your goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is critical to structure the environment and daily processes to promote discovery-based learning.  Similar to Dewey’s findings in education, the key to driving high levels of creativity, initiative, and ownership in the improvement process is to leave the details of the plan “fuzzy” and create opportunities for people to struggle and identify new ways to accomplish organizational goals.  The trick is to allow people the time, resources and latitude to take ownership of the issues, tinker with new process possibilities and discover how creative they can be.  The tradeoff for allowing people the opportunity to discover their own solutions, is that you create a powerful group of explorers who have confidence in their ability to take risks to accomplish stretch goals while at the same time learning at an exponential rate.

One of the difficulties in implementing this approach to learning, is finding the right balance between being crystal clear about your expectations for results while at the same time being ambiguous enough to allow the learner to take ownership of the details and exercise autonomy in the creation process.  While I have yet to achieve a perfect balance, I think it is wise err on the side of allowing people to struggle with ambiguity rather than rest in clarity.

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” – John Dewey