Manufacturing’s great debate: the idea or execution—which is most important to innovation success?

March 27, 2017
Innovation is a central component of manufacturing today. It takes many forms and addresses many functions. Some are simple tactics for improving shop floor operations. Other innovative concepts are mammoth, disrupting the way we do business. But, all innovations start much the same way…a spark of a concept.

Then what? How an idea evolves from inspiration to execution is sometimes a mystery, sometimes pure luck, and sometimes a carefully orchestrated process with many individuals participating, each playing a vital role.

How does your organization embrace innovation?

Although the rapid launch of new products and deployment of new technologies are important to manufacturing’s revival, every manufacturer seems to react differently. There are organizations that thrive on innovation, always eager to be early adopters of new technologies and setting the pace for others to follow. Then, there are others who notoriously lag behind, their workforces grumbling, rumbling, and resisting change of any kind.

Most manufacturers fall somewhere in between, championing a few innovations, casually observing change as it bubbles around them, content to embrace innovation when an opportunity strikes them as unavoidable or risk-free. Perhaps a customer may force adoption of a value-add capability or an aggressive competitor will force the manufacturer to match features rather than lose market share.

This lackadaisical, wait-until-we-have-to approach may have worked in the past. It’s quickly becoming high-risk to sit on the sidelines watching. Being unengaged doesn’t really stop the avalanche of change from touching you. Like an ostrich who puts his head in the sand at the first sense of danger, a manufacturer can’t stop the waves of disruption simply by ignoring them.

Inevitable change happens daily, with or without endorsement from a supervisor, a manual being issued, or a series of training sessions being held. Sometimes that works out. Sometimes the lack of communication and training around a process change can cause serious backlashes of resentment, resistance, and poor adoption rates. For example, a manufacturer may stall making a formal decision about use of mobile solutions and setting a policy about employees using their own devices on the shop floor. No decision is the same as saying “anything goes.” Employees will simply start accessing data through their smart phone, pulling up reports on tablets and sharing documents through social media tools. Lack of control can create chaos and security breaches that will be hard to fix.

What can you do to make sure your company encourages, nurtures, and adapts to the high rate of innovation? Here are seven guidelines to help kick off a strategic approach, one that considers the entire process, inception to execution.

  1. The creative spark New ideas can come from anywhere and often originate in the most unlikely places. Although manufacturers often have an engineering team, a product development department, or Research and Development arm, individuals on these teams aren’t the only ones who engage in problem-solving. The truism “Necessity is the mother invention” has a great deal of merit. This means the people who use the products and the people who are on the assembly line may have the most practical ideas. Manufacturers need tools for capturing and harnessing these kernels of innovation. Online portals, collaboration tools, and message boards replace the traditional suggestion box, making it easy for individuals to submit ideas.
  2. Company culture which accepts risk An innovative company is usually one that is willing to take chances, make mistakes, and move on. Risk tolerance is a necessity and must be reinforced in the company culture. This mindset starts at the top with C-level officers encouraging experimentation, rewarding effort, and acknowledging that not every new idea will succeed. This eliminates barriers of fear which can stifle creativity.
  3. Engage with customers Customers today expect highly personalized products. Online tools allow consumers to select features, choose accessories, pick colors and finishes, and add embellishments for many products, from shoes to cars. This carries over to the industrial commercial industries as well. Buyers of machinery, equipment, and high tech components expect the same kind of ability to interact with the design engineers, providing input on specific features. This level of engagement often produces the most innovative concepts, ones that combine practical functionality with non-essentials, like convenience, comfort, pride, or image. Branding goods with sports teams’ emblems has been successful in the fashion industry for decades. This type of personalization, endorsements, and co-branding efforts are now seeping into the industrial space as well.
  4. Adjacent innovation and unlikely bedfellows Adjacent innovation means building upon and borrowing concepts from enterprises outside of your industry. For example, hospitals may look to the hospitality sector for ways to make patients feel more at home and comfortable. The equipment industry can learn from the fashion industry how to let customers accessorize the equipment cabs and choose from mix and match features. Thanks to easy online searches, whole new worlds of inspiration are open to creative thinkers. Ideas can even come from the natural world, plants, animals and insets. A drone that uses insect-like wing structure for self-healing is just one example.
  5. Hire visionaries and creators As the skills gap issues continues to plague manufacturing, some manufacturers have expanded their hiring parameters to go beyond traditional engineering and mechanical skills. Individuals with liberal arts backgrounds are increasingly being put to work as visionaries, story tellers and creative problem-solvers in manufacturing plants. Since creativity is so critical to the innovation process, manufactures should build their product development teams with a mix of skills, always including individuals with imaginative, creative abilities, someone who can ask, “What if….”
  6. Team buy-in Innovation, departures from the traditional, and wholesale change can be uncomfortable for the workforce, especially if it is perceived that the change may be a threat to job security. Most humans are creatures of habit, finding comfort in the familiar, safe, and predictable. Disrupting routine--without sharing the reason or the benefit--can cause stress in the organization. Involving personnel in the process, though, can eliminate distrust and foster a sense of ownership of the new concept, whether it’s a new workflow, new piece of equipment, or new policy about processing customer orders. Communication is a vital part of innovation—at every level.
  7. Incremental changes can be easily digested When planning to roll out an innovative new concept it may be beneficial to plan a phased approach, gradually building on early successes and moving toward the final project scope. Manufacturing plants have long endorsed the Continuous Improvement school of thought which emphasizes ongoing tracking, monitoring, improving and evaluating results in a non-ending loop. While these changes tend to be incremental, they still involve a steady ebb and flow of process change. This forces personnel to cope with updates to procedures and changes to systems in a steady, predictable flow, while allowing time to digest the change. With this method, changes tend to be nonthreatening and absorbed by the workforce with minimal disruption.

Webinar April 12

You can learn more innovation in an upcoming IndustryWeek webinar, April 12, 11 AM EDT. Join us for “The great Manufacturing Debate: Is concept or execution most important to successful innovation?”

Register now

Some topics our panelists will address include:

  • Are disruptive technologies worth the upheaval to the company?
  • How do you move "theoretical" applications from the classroom drawing board to the board room -- then to the shop floor?
  • How can you predict the pay-out of an innovative idea that is untested?

The panel

  • Andrew Dugenske, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, will present the academic view and value of research-driven concepts.
  • Steve Beard, Infor industry analyst and solution architect, will share his experiences in using data from smart sensors to drive conditioned-based monitoring tactics to keep assets running.
  • Neil Gatenby, Thales Australia, manufacturer of international electronics and systems serving the defense, aerospace and space, security, and transport markets in Australia and throughout the world, will discuss the challenges and opportunities from a manufacturer’s view.
  • Mark Humphlett, Infor industry & solution strategy senior director, will moderate the discussion and add color commentary on the role software plays in helping manufacturers push the boundaries of innovation.
  • EMEA
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