Innovation Works


What perennial problems are you facing? You know, the ones that Lean Six Sigma just can’t fix.

Example: A human resources team was struggling with an intractable problem of onboarding new staff – a

bottleneck that was taking too many people too long. Their numerous lean six sigma projects were unable to

make a breakthrough – just process changes that had a Hawthorn Effect of short term improvements which soon disappeared. Then they heard about artificial intelligence Bots that streamline the onboarding process by automatically interacting with new employees. How was a human resources team supposed to implement AI? Impossible! Yet, their Performance Improvement Director had piloted a new structured innovation approach and challenged them to try it. In just 90 days this HR team used the new innovation method to define onboarding needs, design a solution, configure a bot and prototype it. And, they did it without consultants or expensive IT investments.

What do you think when you hear “Innovation” – scary, risky, expensive? Well think again, because new techniques have made innovation effective for solving some of your most challenging problems in-house, quickly. Innovation is no longer just for scientists and engineers designing in hidden laboratories for years, taking big risks and making big bets. There are innovation opportunities all around you that are NOT high risk, low success rate “moon shot” projects. Many organizations are now using innovation every day to solve intractable problems, adopt outside innovations and develop new solutions for customer opportunities. You can do it too!

Innovation is the missing piece to a continuum of problem solving techniques that begins with Lean and Six Sigma. Many organizations have implemented Lean techniques to reduce waste in transactions and Six Sigma to reduce variance in processes. Fifteen years ago these types of projects required outside expertise and long projects. Now, many managers have learned the tools and use them to improve performance in their daily operations. The difference was the development of techniques, standard methods, project management and training that made them approachable for the common man. Innovation has undergone the same transformation and is ready for you to adopt.

Our study of leading innovative organizations found 10 key insights to successful innovation programs:

  1. Use a clear step-by-step innovation method

  2. Focus on consumer needs, rather than technologies to direct the innovation

  3. Generate Big ideas by focusing on core outcomes, not the symptoms

  4. Minimize early funding by using volunteers and focusing on a minimal viable product

  5. Support projects with innovation experts (design, engineering, business)

  6. Utilize an iterative prototyping approach to quickly build and test the best product

  7. Nurture publicity and storytelling to raise visibility, excitement and funding

  8. Establish an Advisory Group to guide innovation concepts and proposals

  9. Include industry experts/ vendors/ investors on projects to support commercialization

  10. Develop power users to give hands-on training and coaching for innovations to build key behaviors and practical experience

Innovation is a very different approach for very different results. Engineers and lean six sigma professionals get poor results if they try to use innovation tools with a performance improvement approach. The value of the creative, customer-focused, quick prototyping and storytelling approach is missed if you do not understand the overall innovation mindset. So, be careful how you select your initial project, team and training. Although the tools may seem clear, it is not about completing the exercise – it is how you focus the team to make the appropriate leaps forward that is crucial to success. Innovation is fast and frenetic. Teams need to feel safe making radical jumps in logic and using hands-on trials with customers to lead them to working solutions. An innovation coach is critical to guiding your organization’s initial innovation projects across a strange path through new territory.

Innovation is easier than you think. It is important to just get started. Don’t waste time evaluating methodologies and attending seminars. Everyone is basically using design thinking and agile techniques. A book like Innovation Navigation, by Kurt Baumberger, is a good introduction to a structured approach. It is more important to find an innovation coach who is familiar with your industry and has led successful innovation projects in your area. Look for someone who knows how your professionals think, your inherent industry risks and practical ways to overcome your obstacles.

So get started today! Pick three innovation opportunities with internal executive champions, hire an innovation coach to guide them, build three teams of experts and launch the projects with a quick training/design session. (Three projects will show the diversity and capability of innovation and will provide some competitive spirit to the initial efforts.) Then provide resources, support, guidance and approval to cheer them on creating quick breakthroughs in three months. Nothing sells like success.

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