Probing the Limits: The Process of Innovation

June 29, 2007
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When I was a young manufacturing manager I was used to showing up to work in the morning and asking the third-shift lead, “How many cases did you run last night?” I started asking different questions after going through Deming and TQM training. I learned to ask, “How did things run on third shift? What problems did you deal with? Did the changes we made yesterday help?” Deming was right. When we started focusing on the process, the product-the number of quality cases produced-started to really improve for the first time.

This process vs. product issue is fundamental to the success of my new company. We design and sell art kits for kids that are designed to develop creative confidence and innovation skills. The most fundamental concept in art education is, “It’s the process, not the end product that is important.” This means that the most valuable part of an art project is the planning and the creative thinking that happens when doing the project. Whether or not a beautiful final art product is produced is much less important. In fact, more valuable learning often comes from a bad work of art than a piece that turns out beautifully.

At a very high level, this process vs. product issue is affecting manufacturing and quality professionals nationwide.

It all comes down to good old American ingenuity. Our economy is becoming more about the process of innovating than cranking out lots of finished products. Non-creative jobs continue to move overseas and the types of good jobs that will be available for manufacturing and quality professionals-and our kids-will evolve in the upcoming years. There will always be manufacturing in America, but the type of manufacturing that is focused on producing large quantities of products using a single process will head overseas, if it has not already.

America’s future economic success is based on the process of innovation. If we continually improve our ability to innovate, our economy will thrive. If we believe creative skills are something you either have or don’t have and our innovative output stagnates, then our economy will suffer.

I think there is tremendous potential for America to thrive on its ability to improve the process of innovation, if it can address some obstacles.

One of the first challenges is to realize that creative thinking skills and the process of innovation can be taught and improved. Many people think they are either born creative or not. I hear from parents who buy our products, “Oh, I’m not creative but my child really is.” If we raise another generation of Americans that learn (incorrectly) as they grow older that they are not creative, then the ability for our country to innovate will be tragically hampered. Studies have shown that as children progress through grade school, their creative confidence dramatically drops. Both kids and adults need to realize that creative self-deprecation can really hurt themselves and our economy. I’ve seen how well-designed art projects, extracurricular activities and academic curriculums can be effective at improving creative confidence and innovation skills.

The encouraging news for America’s ability to innovate is that the freedom that we enjoy in this country is fertile ground for innovation. A few months ago, we took our products to a QVC cattle call that was looking for mom-and-pop inventors that had unique products to sell. More than 2,000 people showed up in each of three cities to show off their innovative products. People from all walks of life were there. It was thrilling to see the quantity and diversity of American garage inventors. Even in free countries like England, their class system discourages the guy pushing a broom from trying to make it big with an invention.

I think quality professionals play a key role in transitioning our economy from a product economy to an innovation process economy. I’ve found that few people outside the quality profession understand that focusing on the process is more important than the product. Quality professionals are empowered to lead the way with successful improvement projects that take a process-focused approach.

Send me an e-mail at askquality@bnpmedia.com. I would be interested in your thoughts.

 

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