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Building a culture of innovation in manufacturing organizations

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

Manoj Kothari, February 9, 2023

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A mid-size manufacturing organisation reached out to Turian Labs to start a structured innovation program intervention with the team, with the objective of turning it into a creative thinking organization. The program would focus on sensitizing the employees to the emerging innovation paradigm and equipping them with tools and techniques to identify real problems and bring creative solutions to the table.

The question arises, if the organization had been a top rung player of its segment for some time, it would have developed and imbibed elaborate innovation matrices and rituals. What value would a 'new' innovation paradigm add? What can a manufacturing organization gain from any innovation culture initiative if there are already several programs like TPM, Six Sigma, Quality circles, CFT-based problem solving etc. in progress? ISO certification, of course, is now hygiene and usually intends to bring standardization more than anything.

We have to look at four levels to answer this:

  1. Compelling externalities: Any business today is under constant disruption. Changing global business dynamics, tech shifts, the advent of startup upstarts, and changing end-consumer demographic shift to millennials & Gen Z (which ultimately shifts the products & affects the entire value chain) - are together leading to a situation where change initiation and management become complex at every level of the organization. Globalization acts as a double whammy where existing markets are constantly challenged by foreign suppliers. So, from salt makers to steel makers, everyone is looking to find alternative business propositions. B2B players are going B2C through the introduction of a new brand. Creating a brand is easy, but constantly keep aligning the product promise to the shifting mental-models of the stakeholders is a difficult task. The discovery of real problems/issues is now considered the biggest global challenge in business and governance.

  2. Diminishing listening capabilities: Any legacy organization, especially manufacturing ones, tend to develop a strong but rigid hierarchical structure. The natural talent and creative fervor of people tend to get constricted in organization forums due to fear of being judged. As a result, people stop voicing out their opinions. Contrarian views stop surfacing in the meetings, and the vibrant idea-democracy that one sees in startups, becomes a challenging goal for such large organizations. Slowly the culture of experimentation dies. The root of all this is the capability of deep listening at all levels. Organisation need to bring it out from the parlance of marketing and sew it into the organizational fabric once again.

  3. The chasm of consensus building: When someone gets a great idea, developing a consensus is a bigger challenge in any large organization. Learning to triangulate evidence to convince the chain of command is a new-age skill that becomes even more desirable for remotely located teams. Good news is that there are tools and methods for that.

  4. Optimization to innovation shift: In the manufacturing parlance, a lot of methods were developed for the era of ‘optimization’ like six sigma, TQM, TPM etc., which are ‘necessary’ today but not sufficient for triggering innovation for the disruptive reality. That requires headroom for discovering real problems and zeal for iterative experimentation for new solutions, with a margin for a few failures for all participating. Everyone wants to justify ROI (Return on Innovation) in the shortest possible time, but that road goes through a few failures and a failure-forgiving culture.

Organizations worldwide are now discovering the effectiveness of DESIGN THINKING to tackle the FLUX of external changes and internal roadblocks to innovation. Design Thinking is a method that focuses on discovering the real issue hidden in the haystack of contradictory constraints and developing a culture of experimentation to find the right solution. This method was developed in the West (as usual) a few decades back for technology industries but is now widely adopted across the globe and across sectors.

While Design Thinking focuses on the tacit current needs of the customers & broader stakeholders by developing deep-listening skills and a habit of experimentation, one also needs to secure the future. An important basket of tools for this comes from Futures Thinking , especially the tool sets of ‘megatrends’. This enables organizations to develop a thinking muscle for connecting dots across industries and make design of experiments bolder to make future-robust decisions.

All these points seem to cover a broad horizon, and usually, organizations (especially HR heads) are at a loss on where to begin to tame this beast of innovation culture? Here are some quick pointers from our experience:

a) sense the current state of innovation maturity within the organization

b) learn the essence of new method/thought through interactive workshops

c) run a few live sprint using the new methodology with capable facilitators

d) standardize relevant methods in consonance with existing methods/terminology and building a reference library/handbook

e) creating new evaluation matrices and rituals that reinforce the new culture

f) bring in practitioners as facilitators. Theory can be learnt from the cheaper/free online courses.

g) create a center of excellence or innovation lab - where team can find single point connect to try and put new methods into practice.

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