Lean Innovation?

     Five years ago Brian Hindu wrote an article for Bloomberg Businessweek about 3M and how Total Quality Management and Six Sigma movements dramatically decreased their number of patents and new product introductions as number crunching and efficiency stifled innovation and creativity.

     There's a quote (of many) in Gary Hamel's latest book What Matters Now I love: "If life had adhered to Six Sigma rule, we'd still be slime. Whatever the future holds for us bipeds, we can be sure that happy accidents will always be essential to breakthrough innovation (p. 42)." 

     Yet Hamel also discusses the incredibly strong innovative culture at Whirlpool, an organization highly vested in Lean training and methods.  The difference between the two examples occurs when our organizations steer too far in either direction.

     Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works and in a recent NPR interview talks about the intermingling of different expertise for Pixar in of all places, the bathrooms. How many "aha" moments have you had in the shower? Innovation rarely takes place in a four by four cubicle by ourselves. It occurs in the clash of ideas from multiple individuals with different disciplines, and often in a space designed for collaboration. As organizational leaders creating that space and guiding constructive conflict to breakthrough innovation which solves social, economic and environmental issues is simply required.

     There's nothing wrong with trying to be efficient, particularly in a world where resources are becoming scarcer and prices only rise as a result. The global economic crisis combined with the drive for quarterly earnings has led many organizations to tighten their belts so far that most of us wear multiple hats. Regardless of the pace of economic growth that's not likely to change. The future isn't one of bloated organizational bureaucracies.  So we have to understand both the precepts of Lean Six, and what drives creativity and innovation.

     Which leads me to Howard Gardner and his quick read Five Minds for the Future, which should be a must read in high school these days, let alone in college.  By quick read I only mean it won't take you long to understand some profound concepts. My apologies to Howard for the paraphrasing.

The Disciplined Mind:  Consistent work ethic improving knowledge of our specific field; Understanding multiple ways of thinking (scientific, history, art, design); and developing expertise in our field.

The Synthesized Mind:  In an overload of information age (not all of which has any value) determining what we will give attention to, what processes we will use, and how we will share our conclusions with others.  It is the combination of multiple disciplines (knowledge forms) that lead to innovation.

The Creative Mind: Unfortunately much of our education systems destroy creativity with single answers to problems at the back of the book (that's my opinion, not Gardner's). Creators change how people think and behave, which can only really be judged years later and certainly not in time for quarterly earnings reports.

The Respectful Mind: There is one species called humanity, but if you don't understand that there are multiple cultures and approaches to life, learning, problem solving and what the future looks like, you should probably run for Congress where ideology prevents both logic and creativity.  We don't have to agree with everyone else's worldview, but particularly in this country, we do have to agree with their right to believe it.  Diversity is a tremendous gift to be accepted and respected.

The Ethical Mind: It would take you less than five seconds to come up with lapses in ethics around the planet which have had major dire impacts on humanity.  This has more to do with not deciding how we behave in global environment by some logic or profit based model, but what are our responsibilities as citizens, employees, leaders and members of multiple communities?

     As I've shared previously my original major in college was improvisational theater and communication.  That became broadcasting which led to sales/consulting and eventually into the financial sector.  In the negative sense improvisational finances led us to mortgage backed derivatives that made millions or billions for a few and nearly destroyed the finances of 99% of us.

     On the positive side it creates an ability to explore creative space and innovation, and when a breakthrough is achieved, apply the Lean Six principles to getting the product or service to market. An associate of mine is making a living teaching improvisational theatre techniques to Fortune 500 executives to help them stay in the moment while fostering team interaction and innovation.  They're certainly still accountable for budgets and efficiencies.

     There is absolutely a place, and maybe a required new discipline for Lean Innovation in our organizations today.  I'm also not alone in that paradigm, as Daniela Marzag√£o writes in Innovation and Six Sigma Need Not Be Exclusive for RealInnovation.com.

     How we apply both in their proper measure is up to us, but we can't really make significant progress without both.

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