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Companies only have two competitive advantages: their people and innovation. And people are the ones who come up with innovative ways to do things. Without that push to evolve, your lean initiative may languish. If folks aren’t coming up with and embracing new ideas, you will have a tendency to do things the way you’ve always done them. And that is a death knell for lean.

Companies such as Google, Apple, Zappos and Cisco invest a lot of time and energy on two things: making sure that their people are engaged and excited about what they are doing and creating an atmosphere of innovation. In lean parlance, this falls into the respect for people pillar. People must feel valued and have autonomy in order to create new ways of doing things. How do they do this? First, they pay attention to employees’ needs and tell them how much they appreciate what they do. Managers walk around and get to know employees and their passions, likes, dislikes and motivations.

Second, they create a climate where innovation is rewarded and there are no bad ideas. They don’t negate new ideas. They embrace everything as a possibility and discuss the options. They are not afraid of failure. They foster an environment where people can come together formally and informally to share ideas and thoughts on how business is done and how to make it better. Employees are taught to silence their inner critic and managers are taught to say “yes” and “thank you” instead of “no, but” or “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” To be clear, “Yes, and . . .” doesn’t mean agreeing with everything. “Yes, and . . .” creates a healthy dialogue and meaningful discussions.

For example, an engineering company tried to come up with ideas for creating more fun and engagement at work. In the group exercise, everyone’s ideas were responded to with “yes, but . . .” to raise awareness about old, limiting habits. Then, the group switched the exercise to “yes, and…” responses. The positive suggestions built upon each other until the group came up with a way to foster innovation in the company by gathering for 20 minutes per day to “play.” For those 20 minutes, employees could do anything they wanted to do as long as it wasn’t their day-to-day job (e.g., they could tackle a bigger issue or work on a new way of doing something).

As construction folks, they were taught to find every way that something would not work, which effectively was shutting down their creativity and innovation. With the 20-minute play rule, they had the opportunity to come up with completely new ways of looking at things. What if you targeted this exercise further and asked, “How can we foster more of a lean culture at work?”

Framework for Innovation

What is the atmosphere at your company? Is it open to new ideas and innovation? Do you embrace lean principles and culture? Thinking differently is essential to surviving in this uncertain economic climate. Early designers of flying machines used movable wings because it emulated a bird in flight, but it wasn’t until the paradigm was shifted with fixed wing aircraft that manned flight became possible. Artificial hearts emulate a real heart with chambers and a flow of blood that causes a heartbeat, but the latest innovation in that arena is an artificial heart with a simple pump that continuously flows the blood through the body. There is no heartbeat.

These paradigm shifts led to efficient and simple solutions, but it took someone to look at the way things were being done and say, “what if…”

Companies are starting to wake up to this fact about innovation and how it relates to their lean journey. What if they started hiring MFAs (masters of fine arts) instead of MBAs? Would these creative people give companies the competitive edge they need?

What is your expertise? What are your employees’ talents? How can you leverage that in a business setting to create new revenue streams? Don’t think about how you’ve always done business. Think about what value you and your people bring and see if that is applicable in other areas such as lean and pull planning. Get a group discussion going and brainstorm this concept. You never know where it will lead.

Some people resist embracing creativity and innovation because they think there are no rules, boundaries or processes involved. But there are some great methodologies out there that serve as frameworks for innovation. One of them is from Stanford’s Institute of Design. This five-step process is amazing for design and problem-solving. Try this next time you have a constraint that you can’t seem to resolve.

  1. Empathize: Ask end users a lot of questions and find out the needs and criteria for the solution. Put yourself in their shoes. What is the perfect desired outcome?
  2. Clearly define the problem: Einstein said if he had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem. By clearly defining the problem, the solution becomes more apparent. NASA asked: “How do we get a pen to write in space?” They spent a lot of money coming up with a space pen that could write in zero gravity. The Russians defined the problem differently. They asked: “How can we write in space?” The answer was simple: Use a pencil.
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm and come up with as many solutions as possible.
  4. Prototype: Actually build one of the solutions.
  5. Test: Check to see if it works. If not, go back and create another prototype or go back even further to ideation. A Note on Adaptability

Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” quote is usually taken out of context. By “fittest,” he didn’t mean the strongest. He meant the one who could adapt. Those are the ones who survive.

The movie “Moneyball” is a great reminder of this concept. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, wanted to change the game of baseball by abandoning the traditional scouting process and using statistical analyses to find the “right” players who could attain the correct number of runs and wins to earn a playoff slot. It worked quite well. The Athletics won 20 games in a row, setting a new baseball record. Although the Athletics never won a championship, they consistently had good teams even though their budget was 40 percent smaller than some other big league teams’ budgets. The ROI on this approach is undeniable.

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Brent Darnell is an international best-selling author and leading authority on Emotional Intelligence. He is President and owner of Brent Darnell International, a training and consulting company that maximizes companies’ success by tapping into the “soft” skills, or the Emotional Intelligence of each employee. Brent has been awarded with the prestigious honor of being named among Engineering News-Record’s Top 25 Newsmakers for his transformation of the construction industry’s Alpha Males.