Webster’s Dictionary defines innovation as, “a new idea or method or device.” That definition is rather vague as it implies that anything new is innovative. That is simply not the case. Painting a blue widget red, or making it round instead of square may have merit, but it is not necessarily innovative.

“Innovation” comes from the Latin word “novare” which includes, as part of its meaning, “to change, to alter, to invent.” Innovation carries with it a newness that comes from a fresh approach.           

The subject of innovation came about as a result of Quality Magazine’s recent Manufacturing & Measurement Conference & Workshop (MMCW) 2007 held in Clearwater, FL.

Many of the speakers addressed new techniques for making accurate and repeatable measurements. These were innovative because the approaches were ones that had not been previously considered and they yielded sought-after knowledge about measurement.

Other speakers suggested innovative ways of increasing measurement knowledge on the part of the operator. They proposed fresh, new approaches that have never been attempted.

In a global economy, the cost of production is often a driving factor in deciding where a product is made. This directly influences the amount of economic power a region wields. A case in point is the power of China. Its cheap labor gives it a leadership role when it comes to exports. At one time, cheap labor, and the power that went with it, was found in South Korea, Japan and Mexico. The competitive advantage that the United States has is its ability to innovate. That advantage finally may be challenged.

MMCW speaker and author Praveen Gupta and I had the chance to discuss the importance of the U.S. edge in innovation. He has a new book, “Business Innovation in the 21st Century,” that I am reading. Gupta’s basic premise is that innovation is a process that can be understood and, hence, taught and refined to improve the results of innovation.

In understanding and implementing such a process, an individual, company or country can maintain a leadership position in business, education, manufacturing or whatever their chosen field. Therein lies the challenge for U.S. manufacturing.

If innovation can be learned here, it can be learned in other countries. And, in regions such as China, Vietnam, India, Eastern Europe and elsewhere where there is a high level of education, the United States could find itself in a tight race in which it has long held the lead.

Quality Magazine is committed to supporting such leadership in innovation.  In our Quality Innovations column, we look at innovative products that solve current measurement, test and inspection demands in an inventive manner. The fact that we run this feature on a regular basis testifies to the fact that, despite what cynics may say about there “being nothing new in quality,” the industry has plenty of innovation stimulating its forward momentum.

What does your company do to promote innovation? How innovative are you? Let me know at [email protected].

Thomas Sloma-Williams is publisher of Quality Magazine.