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Thinking Through Innovation

By: Matt Edison

Competition in the 21st century requires organizations to innovate faster and with more daring than ever before.   In response managers push to hire the best and brightest expecting that they will excel at thinking and thus excel at delivering results.  However, bright people make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes can delay a launch, damage credibility, cause a recall or waste precious resources.   Innovating can be made more reliable and more efficient by redesigning the innovation process to include techniques to elicit good thinking.

Manufacturers will appreciate that thinking closely resembles a process, a sequence of events designed to produce a desired outcome.  If a company needs to produce a part faster, at better economics or with fewer defects the first step is to build a process map so everyone can look at how it’s made.  Similarly, if a company is attempting to develop a new technology everyone needs to be able to look at why it’s made that way. 

Most scientist and engineers are familiar with technical reports for describing the thinking behind a process change or a new technology.  Smaller organizations, however, tend to feel these reports don’t add enough value when compared to the effort required to write them.  These reports also aren’t part of daily routines making them doubly onerous to write.  Combining what R&D groups do routinely generate, manufacturing procedures, with the elements of a technical report can help to improve the success rate for innovation efforts.

A specialty manufacturer pinned great hopes on a new patented technology developed in house.  Initial screenings by customers of the new material were extremely favorable.  However, as customers tried to produce their desired parts, the manufacturer’s material just wouldn’t perform.  After much effort and embarrassment it was discovered that an impurity was present in the material at a dramatically higher level than expected.  This mistake in thinking caused the company to lose thirty months of momentum in the target market.

Company scientists had combined two existing technologies in a never before seen combination to produce the new material.  The root cause of the missed high impurity concentration was the application of assumptions from the two existing technologies in evaluating the success of the new combination technology.  The application of the old assumptions to the new technology caused them to miss several signals that something was wrong with the new material.

To improve the probability that they would innovate successfully the first time around on the next new technology, the scientists developed a simple approach to aid their innovations.  A new manufacturing procedure format was adopted which required the scientists to include their thinking in lockstep with the steps necessary to produce the new material.  The procedure placed the “what to do” on the left side of the page and the “why we do it that way” on the right.

Guidelines were developed for what information to include in the “why” section of the new manufacturing procedures.  Five elements made up a complete “why” for each step of the procedure:
Raw material:  Why was this material (or why were these materials) chosen for this step?
Process: Why was this equipment, these conditions and this sequence chosen?
Mechanism: Why is it believed that this step produces the desired outcome?  How could a failure of the mechanism be detected?
Specification: Why were these measurements and values chosen to be the objective for this step?
Analytical: Why will this analytical tool and this analytical method prove that this step was successful?

The new manufacturing procedure format forced the scientists to think through what they were attempting before they committed time and resources.  The format enabled the contribution of others as colleagues and managers could review what the scientists were thinking without having to ask them in person or wait for a formal review.  Unexpectedly the talents of the manufacturing group were now more fully engaged because they now understood why the procedure was written the way it was. 

The World Wide Web, containerized shipping and a relatively stable global political environment have shattered most barriers to competition.  Knowledge is the one remaining competitive advantage, but it is perishable.  To continue to develop new knowledge demands organizations improve the odds that good thinking will take place.  Redesigning work to require more systematic thinking is one way to innovate more rapidly and more reliably and thus thrive in this hyper competitive global environment.

Bio

Matt Edison works as the Reactive Silicones Business Manager for Gelest, a specialty chemical manufactrer north of Philadelphia. In his current role, Matt leads business development projects, manages the silicone technology group, and improves company business systems. His special interest in improving organizaitonal performance to realize customer opportunities can be seen throughout his accomplishments and is the impetus for these articles. Since 2989, Matt has also worked for DuPoint, General Chemical, and Inoles Chemical where his roles included Plant Manager and Engineering Manager, among others. He can be reached at matt.edison@gmail.com or at 267-312-3537.

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