“But my job does not require me to be creative. I am not sure why I need to attend this workshop”, was the statement we received recently from a participant of one of our Innovation and Productivity workshops. This was not the first time.…
Each improvement project undergoes two general phases, As-Is and Should-Be. Whereas the first stage is about understanding the problem, identifying and confirming the root causes, the latter one requires to turn the newly gained knowledge into impactful solutions that have a good chance to get implemented. Here are some tips for the solutioning stage.
When thinking about solutions for your problems, understanding the real root causes is a vital prerequisite. If you try to replace proper root cause analysis with some nice and fancy creativity tools that are not really designed to arrive at scientific root causes, that is worse than not analysing at all. Proper root cause analysis entails a thorough diagnosis of the underlying process with adequate supporting data. This usually leads to some short-term success often born out of the Hawthorne effect that is neither sustainable nor substantial. Analyse properly.
Not everyone who is good in dealing with data collection and its analysis is well suited for coming up with good solutions. Consider enriching the “As-Is Team” with people who have the capability and the motivation to think out of the box for your solutioning stage. Look out for colleagues who usually push boundaries, question norms and come up with unconventional ideas.
You might also want to consider involving the process stakeholders. They are more likely to buy-in and support solutions that they have helped to design themselves. Leaving them out might generate resistance. Include them.
Example: If you want to reduce the recruitment cycle time and you discover that your Deputy HR Director applies batching by going through all new recruitment files only on Fridays, one solution is very obvious. However, don’t forget to “sell” this to the Deputy. She may not like to be told that she is “one of the obstacles”.
Some solutions present themselves as a result of the analysis. If the analysis shows that different ways to run the process have been used in the past of which one is clearly better, just go for that one after a careful assessment of the reasons why people depart from that way. Keep the solutioning pragmatic.
Almost always, project teams will be able to improve the process. And they are able to show a significant improvement proudly using newly attained statistical knowledge. However, statistical significance does not automatically mean that the findings are relevant to the organisation.
Example: If your team is able to prove that they have reduced the turn-around-time for a government application process from average 104 days to an average of 98 days, the question to ask may be “Who cares?” They have not spent hours and hours on working on this improvement project to come up with this minor improvement – that probably even goes away after a while of Hawthorning.
In case the solution does not present itself, some powerful creativity tools come in handy. They support idea generation for innovating the way work gets done and – most importantly – help opening up the mind. These techniques almost never point out a very good solution immediately. The first phase is the phase of harvesting the low hanging fruits. Only after these non-exciting, in-the-box solutions are gathered, the better solution ideas will appear. This often happens when the team is about to give up, disappointed.
Hence, take the necessary time for this process. Coming from a business meeting having your head loaded with all the action items, joining a creativity session for half an hour before you run for the next meeting that will stretch you again is a prerequisite for failure – at least in the creativity session.
Take your time, generate a relaxed atmosphere and go for quantity. It is very unlikely, that one out of three ideas generated is a real break-through. Ten out of a hundred ideas might be really good of which one is the one that changes everything. Take your time for solutioning.
The strongest lever for process change in a non-manufacturing environment is the human being. This becomes obvious when you find root causes during your process analysis that pinpoint towards operators. Use this to your advantage.
Example: After discovering that the same process under exactly the same circumstances takes different time for different people and you can not explain this with a different level of experience, it is time to think about changing behaviour. Synchronising the processes for different operators by standardising milestones from assigning cases to informing the client about the outcome will apply a soft peer pressure, often good enough to get impressive results.
Having generated a hundred ideas with many good ones does require some filtering and prioritising. A rather sophisticated prioritisation matrix or just a four-blocker Effort-Impact-Matrix or any other tool can be used for that. The goal is: Keep focused, your resources are usually limited.
Example: A senior leader who deploys improvement projects in her organisation frequently, always requests her project teams to present only the three best solutions for implementation. The effect is remarkable: you are required to do a much more thorough filtering including a valid cost-benefit-analysis in order to arrive at the three you would go for. This would be less important if you were allowed to present ten.
During the journey of applying the newly acquired knowledge, do always double check with your common sense switched on.
Example: As soon as you find a solution “training of staff” in the prioritisation matrix, you should ask the question whether this is helpful. After a process change, training of staff is most likely necessary but not a solution in itself. Training rather supports “real” solutions. The same applies to changing an SOP, running a survey etc. Distinguish between real solutions and catalysts, support tasks that make the solutions work and help sustaining their gains. Hence, don’t prioritise these items out.
“iPhone, Google, Samsung Mobile Phones and other products” are usually mentioned when it comes to innovation. It seems that innovation is strongly connected to new products everyone can see and even experience. The talk about Process Innovation is rather limited or left to the “process specialists”.
Doblin has shown that the Return On Investment (ROI) of product innovations is by far lower than what you get when you rethink the way you make, sell and deliver your product or service. The HOW is much more important than the WHAT.
Some years ago when we established our business in Singapore, the registration of our company was easy. We just needed to register our company with the government agency through a very simple and hassle-free online application. However, setting up a bank account for the company was not that simple. Doing it online was not possible. We made some calls to the major foreign banks like HSBC and Standard Chartered and we realised then that they were not ready to support SMEs. Then, we heard about OCBC and their new offerings for SMEs. We gave OCBC a try.
On the phone, Yu Jin, one of their bankers, explained the advantages of their new SME business account model. Everything looked very promising until he asked: “When can you come to our office to open the bank account?”
“Today is not possible since we are with clients all day.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“No way. We are with a ministry from eight to six. After that I fly out to clients in China to spend a week with them”, I answered somewhat frustrated. I could not see an obvious way to solve our problem of opening our company bank account. And – much more important – to get our business finally up and running.
Still on the phone, Yu Jin thought for a while and asked
“What do you do tonight?” And, before I could get irritated he completed his thought: “Can I come to your place to finalise this application with you?”
At eight in the evening, he arrived at my house, explained all the formalities to me and my partner, we signed the papers and … voila. Problem solved.
On the one hand, I am very sure that at that time OCBC’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) did not explicitly tell their bankers to go the extra mile, to do something outstanding to help their clients with a creative solution. On the other hand, their culture must have been built in a way that people felt encouraged and empowered to do so.
The “WHAT”, which is the bank account, may be offered by other banks in a similar way for a similar price. The “HOW” makes the difference. Until today, we really appreciate the open mind-set Yu Jun was showing. He did not express the typical “Can Not” attitude. Instead, he delivered the service in a very unexpected way, an innovative way. He did something many people would not be keen to explore since it was beyond what the company said he could or should do.
This is what I call “Everyday Innovation”.
Waiting for the next “great innovative product idea” may never get you one step closer to a higher level of customer satisfaction, more revenue and consistent business growth. Instilling an innovative mind-set facilitated by some simple creativity tools that are supported by empowerment does. Process Innovation creates much more value to the business than one realises. It can be done by nearly everyone in your organisation at any time because processes run every day. Everyday Innovation will change your organisation.
 Larry Keeley, Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn, Helen Walters: Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs. Wiley, 2013
Over the last decade, companies and organisations in nearly every industry all over the world have introduced Lean Six Sigma to increase customer satisfaction and to deliver impressive results. An outstanding example is General Electric, the company who has made Six Sigma as popular as it is today.
Another term that has drawn tremendous attention in the business world is Innovation. On the one hand, Lean Six Sigma works towards very low variation in processes with high efficiency. Innovation, on the other hand, seeks to find undiscovered, uncertain territory. Such efforts are rather inefficient. Innovation requires risk-taking, making mistakes and learning from failures.
Can a corporate culture be developed on both key thinking patterns in order to get the best out of Lean Six Sigma Efficiency and Innovative Solutions? Does it make sense to think Innovation Six Sigma?…
Working with management teams of our clients often takes them away from their business for a few days. They frequently get in touch with their teams at home. Sometimes I involuntarily eavesdrop their part of the conversation. “How is it going? Is everything ok?” is a very common question they ask their teams. When they get some kind of “yes” they feel much better.
My old professor at the university, we called him Ho, had the habit of having tea with the whole team of his assistants in the morning whenever he was around. I cannot say that these sessions were my favourite pastime. Yet, I have to say that these sessions had been a great learning experience. Ho would never ask a question like “Is everything ok?” Instead, his preferred question was “What are your issues? What is new?”
Not knowing the context of his enquiry, I once replied somehow like “No issues. Everything is ok.” For him this was a very cheap answer and Ho countered immediately “So, you don’t have issues. It either means you don’t work or you don’t change anything; you did not try anything new since we met last time. The day you stop improving what you do and how you do it is the day you start falling behind.”
The day you stop improving what you do and how you do it is the day you start falling behind.
Besides the request for continuous improvement and change his question implied that he did expect problems. Ho encouraged us and indirectly sanctioned issues and mistakes. He made the continuous search for better ways part of our business life. Ho never blamed someone if something went wrong. Instead, he expected us to name the issue, own it and suggest a solution. The worst crime one could commit in business life was the crime of not trying to get better every day.
Continuous improvement does not start with massive Lean Six Sigma or Innovation initiatives. To the contrary, continuous improvement needs to be part of the DNA of an organisation if you want to ensure that your aforementioned initiative is successful and lasting. Here are some simple tips that will help incorporating the habit of continuous improvement into the normal business life:
You may have heard and read much in the last few years regarding creativity and innovation. Or you may even have attended a creativity workshop that you found interesting and fun that has helped you come up with some new ideas. Now your current employer may be requiring innovative input. However, you find that your suggestions are mostly ignored or frowned upon. This is mainly because nobody has told you the „The Secret of Contextual Thinking”.
You may have heard and read much in the last few years regarding creativity and innovation. Or you may even have attended a creativity workshop that you found interesting, fun and helped you come up with some new ideas. Now your current employer may be requiring innovative input. However, you find that your suggestions are mostly ignored or frowned upon.
This is mainly because nobody has told you „The Secret of Contextual Thinking‟.
In the case of creativity and innovation, not only do managers have different ideas of what they mean, but they find it difficult to express them in a consistent manner. This results in resorting to clichés such as out-of-the-box thinking, or ideas producing bottom-line results. If there is such a variety in opinion, what can you do as a potential or current employee to provide the required creative and innovation input?
Your innovative idea has flaws that your managers and colleagues see a mile away. However, they seem to be blinded to the financially rewarding innovative insights that you find obvious.
This comes with the territory. Instead you can deflect negative criticism by asking for constructive input: How would you improve this idea? How can we overcome this hurdle? (people usually do not give much feedback, but if they do, it can help you improve your idea and keep them quiet for a while).
Your aim is to know what your managers understand by creativity and innovation. What is their “box” when they use the “out-of-the-box” expression? How do they see the development of the products and processes and the technologies supporting them? This step is essential in discovering “the secret”.
What is the market or technological trend that you can use to back your future innovation? Which innovations from other players in the industry or similar industries in your country or abroad come to mind? What are your customers looking for? How can you meet their current challenges?
Stretch your mind to go beyond the 2nd best to the best option. Once you have generated many options you will get a better understanding on the different innovative possibilities facing you. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling said “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away”.
How does your perfect solution look like? You will start building a series of criteria that will guide your selection and future building up of a valuable solution. (This is crucial to find “the secret”).
You can proceed by identifying potential flaws (your colleagues will volunteer to help you do this) and refining your idea to remove those flaws or turn them into leverage points. The weakness of an idea can become its strength in a different context. For instance, the product Post-It™ was the result of a failed attempt to create stronger glue for paper.
Some basic guidelines to adopt when giving creative and innovative input are as follows:
Finally, use “the secret of contextual thinking” from the first to the last moment of the process. This is simply stated “the ability to perceive, understand and value creative and innovative input from the other’s (your manager) perspective”. You may even get to the point where the ideas that you produce resonate so much on your managers that they will themselves carry them out. This ability builds up through insightful questioning and deep listening but it all starts with the intention (desire) to discover and understand deeply the cultivated (reasoned) viewpoints of others (try practicing with friends or relatives).
The leverage to “the secret of contextual thinking” is that the more you build trust in the existing managerial paradigm on creativity and innovation, the more you will be able to stretch that paradigm to enable the company to see beyond to the possibilities of new business models, markets or even redefining one’s industry. Are we not after all in a “City of Possibilities”?
Innovation has drawn tremendous attention in the business world over the last decades and seems to be up on the radar screens again. The character of Innovation has changed over time from the traditional research-based theory towards the knowledge-driven approach that is based heavily on our social networks. Innovation has made its way from the laboratory into all parts of business life.
The more important is to identify drivers and hindrances for Innovation. The Readiness to Innovate depends on basically three factors: Individual Creativity and Innovativeness, Support by Organisational Climate and System Openness. This article aims to explore the motivation for Individuals’ Innovativeness and hence their influence on company’s growth and revenue.
“We need to increase productivity!” What sounds very reasonable on a country scale could be damaging on a company level.
Now, after nearly two years of recession the economy is back on track, i.e. companies of all sectors sell more. This is good news, isn’t it? It brings our productivity to new heights, meeting and even surpassing the levels we had seen before the recession. Stop! This is not really good news. This is expected news. Every company – well managed or not – will be able to show these figures. The question is: have companies used the time of low productivity to expand the productivity potential in preparation for the future?
Some time ago, I was facilitating a Six Sigma project group involved in solving a process challenge. This group had been working on defining the parameters regarding recruitment policies. This included the allocation of cubicle, phone number, password, printing of name cards, email, pass card, etc for the new hires. The process involved seven people, taking about five months to complete. The team had dutifully performed all the analysis required, used the necessary tools and come up with detailed process delays corresponding to different positions to be delivered to the new hires. It all pointed out to be a ‘people problem’. “If Mr X and Mrs Y did their job properly we would not have any delays” was the assumed concluded answer to all the problems.
If you want to clarify or explore a task, find root causes of a problem or develop your strategic thinking skills you may want to consider the queen of exploration tools: WEBBING.
One of the ways to remember this tool is by looking at Spiderman. Like Spiderman you can use the tool to move from building to building (question to question) having always a different perspective of the world (task). Why would you do that? You may want to better understand why things are the way they are. Or even look for what is the point of leverage for your future actions. And, remember that every building (question) has insights (assumptions and details) that can help you understand your task more clearly – sometimes more objectively – and reach your target faster and with less effort. Therefore, you need to become an in-depth inquisitive person (also called strategic thinker, innovator and coach). As a result, you will be able to assess questions by their value.
Basically this Spiderman-like behaviour is involved in three types of actions:
We met a client to prepare the launch of their Process Excellence programme. One of the project proposals we have been looking at was putting the solution upfront being “Automation of the XYZ application process to increase customer satisfaction”. Obviously, everyone, including project leader, sponsor, head of department and even CEO were quite sure that this was the way to go. Since having the solution stated that clearly, we could not expect creative and open-minded teamwork that could apparently lead to a different solution. Hence, we decided to “Web” the task and shed some light on the background behind the project definition (Figure 1).
After putting the question “How might we automate our process?” in the middle of the Web (in the middle of Figure 1) and asking “Why” and “Why else” often enough, we easily discovered the driving forces behind this task as “Long response time to customer”, “Low customer satisfaction”, “Many processing errors” and “High staff workload” (upper part in Figure 1). After stating the obvious, we moved into a more interesting discussion by asking the question “What is stopping you?” to reveal potential blocking stones and associated assumptions at a much more detailed level (lower part in Figure 1).
Forcing people to think in this direction made clear that we had not done our preparation for the project yet. Besides the question about the approval for the investment we struggled to answer questions around resources as well as change management. Most importantly, the pressing need and the benefits of the investment. Going one step deeper we could not even say whether there are alternative approaches. Because we did not have a clear picture of weaknesses in the process. This way, we mapped the web for the “Automation Solution” (burgundy area in Figure 1).
Starting again from top to bottom and asking the “Why else?” question often enough, the web changed to an alternative task that is “Increase Efficiency” driving nearly the same outcome Automation was supposed to drive. In the Web this “Hot Spot” shows up by having many incoming and outgoing arrows.
Furthermore, it became apparent that focussing on the task “Increase Efficiency” we could not only improve our process but also gather enough data and information (red arrows in Figure 1) to support the “Automation Idea” in a second phase.
Going through this simple exercise enforced revealing assumptions and details behind the original task and resulted in change of the latter. This exercise “opened up” the project title. We moved from stating the solution towards requesting information and analysing root causes with an open mind. Only then, the best solution will evolve.
Creative thinking tools can be used individually (you can explore your challenge yourself), in pairs (good for coaching, counselling) and IN GROUPS. You can mix all these approaches as you want. Hence, participants can use it individually or in pairs before they come in a group (or start in a group and then proceed to refine it individually before coming together in a group again). What are the benefits of doing this?
Webbing is a powerful exploration tool. It can and should be used in situations where there is some slight doubt about what is stated. Consequently, it can help to open people’s mind to think outside the obvious thread of thought. The method works both ways, to uncover the consequences as well as the root causes of actions. Applied in a group by a skilful facilitator, this tool can help exploring tasks and conclusions to support – and question – decisions. And, it always helps to realign project teams.
Architect of High-Performing Organisations