Echoes of Innovation…

It is one thing to understand the challenges we’re facing today and the underlying need for change. It is entirely something else to identify that innovation which represents real value to our customers, employees and shareholders. It’s this innovation that builds a robust organization. It’s what makes us unique.



Change comes to our organizations in one of three ways:

  • Adopted Solutions (external input)
  • Adapted Solutions (external input, blended with internal factors)
  • Internal Innovation

Over the last fifteen years we have seen an increased willingness to adopt “just add water” change programs as a tool to help offset ever growing competition.

By adopting existing programs managers believed that they were demonstrating the type of decisive leadership that would keep companies competitive. In the quest for business’s “Holy Grail,” the last thing that we wanted was to be seen doing nothing.

At the same time, we have seen the unprecedented growth in the consulting industry. It is estimated that the number of consulting firms supporting these pre-packaged change efforts has grown 97% since 1990. During the same period the number of individual consultants grew by 170% and consulting revenues grew by a staggering 334%.

Prior to this explosion of “canned” solutions, management had been accused of ignoring potential improvements simply because they weren’t “home grown.” Katz and Allen referred to this phenomenon as the “Not Invented Here” syndrome (NIH). Clearly there was truth to this concern. Our egos and arrogance had fostered a “bunker” mentality that seriously damaged our ability to compete. We were trying to survive by “driving the old process’s harder.”

However, there is a much bigger threat to industry than “Not Invented Here,” We are now facing the threat of “Nothing Invented Here.” We are allowing external initiatives to dominate our idea landscape. We are moving from a class of innovators, to a class of implementers; implementers of the ideas of others.

As leaders we need to be aware of new technologies and techniques and determine their true value to our customers, our employees and our shareholders. No one else can do this for us. Customer Relationship Management, Enterprise Resources Planning, Material Requirements Planning, Just In Time, Kanban, Process Mapping, Kaizen Events and Lean Techniques; each of these programs and tools brings value, but they no longer represent level one innovation. These programs are the echoes of the innovation that came before.

Adopting is a tool that gets improvement into our organization faster and easier than inventing. However when we adopt we are “standing on the shoulders” of others who took the time to understand the essence of the market they serve. When we embrace these programs at face value, we may understand the “how” of change but not the deeper “why.” We haven’t earned the knowledge.

Today,Toyota is one of the most imitated manufacturing organizations in the world. The Toyota Production System is not a “random collection” of adopted systems. It was developed out of a “clean sheet” process that encompassed a value system, an understanding of the market they were entering, and an understanding of their own limitations in post warJapan. It was designed to address the challenges they were facing.

Almost fifty years later, the TPS is the premier manufacturing system in the world, dominating such mass production giants as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.Toyotaearned the knowledge. They understood the “why.”

This is not to say that we can’t adopt or adapt if the time or cost advantage offset the value of local innovation. But, understand that when we adopt we lose the opportunity to innovate; to gain a unique advantage in the market. It is innovation lost. Those companies that choose to follow will become the “beasts of burden” of the next economy.  While they may survive, it will be at the will of more innovative organizations.

When we adopt “Off the Shelf” programs we are not gaining a competitive advantage. At best we are gaining parity with the hundreds of other organizations adopting the same program. It is a defensive move, not innovation. We don’t compete by being the same we compete by being different; by being uniquely better. If we don’t offer uniqueness in the areas of technology, quality and responsiveness we are forced to compete solely on price.

When we allow “me too” programs to dominate the idea landscape, we do so at the expense of true organizational innovation. Inventing is a critical element of a dynamic organization. We need it; it defines us. It is part of our organizational DNA.

Saying that we are in the plastics business is like saying that Jackson Pollock was in the “canvas” business. We are all in the innovation business. Our end product is only the medium we work with. It’s the creativity, curiosity and intensity that we bring to that medium that determines our ultimate success or failure.

Barry Stuart

Article originally published in Plastics News December 23, 2008. Entire contents copyright 2011 by Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.