I came across “The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation” by Matthew E. May while scanning the business section at a Half Price Books store. I picked it up because the price was right, to be honest. It sat in a stack at home for months before I came across it again. I had just finished reading Daniel H. Pink’s “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” and was pondering about creativity & innovation. So, it made sense to read on the approach Toyota took. I regret not reading it sooner.
May dispels the myth that innovation happens in flashes of brilliance within a select group of people possessing an aptitude for creativity. He presents the system Toyota has in place wherein innovation and creativity are the domain of every person. Everybody is inherently creative and we would do well tap into this vast resource. But before you roll your eyes, May gives a reality check and points out that the net impact of your innovation is relative to your base of responsibility, power and control. This grows the higher you move in the organization.
In the book he reveals the three principles that fuel the engine of innovation at Toyota even today: Ingenuity in craft, Pursuit of perfection, and Fit with society. He details 10 key practices – the toolbox – that make these principles operational: Let learning lead; Learn to see; Design for today; Think in pictures; Capture the intangible; Leverage the limits; Master the tension; Run the numbers; Make Kaizen mandatory, and Keep it lean. And, he demonstrates how these principles and practices come together with various examples & anecdotes that go beyond Toyota or even the automotive industry to addressing social problems.
May takes great pains to pepper the book with quotes from figures across the spectrum of human endeavors to show that Toyota or the East didn’t invent these concepts. But, Toyota’s innovative & disciplined use of them has made it “a double threat: the world’s finest manufacturer and a truly great innovator…”
The writing is very reader friendly. I was devouring the book with speed. The structure of the book reinforces the problem solving approach. Each chapter on the 10 practices defines the Problem, identifies the Cause and presents the Solution. Each chapter ends with a section for self-reflection (Hansei): questions that I am using to exercise my brain daily. I would recommend that everyone, not just professionals, read “The Elegant Solution” at least once.
I have been guilty, many times over, of making snarky comments about someone else’s ideas. Sometimes I have made them directly to the person. Other times I have said things behind their back. Now with Twitter, Facebook and the many other social media apps on the web it’s easier to pass judgment on ideas of people I don’t know and will probably never meet.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with finding fault with and pointing out flaws in a person’s ideas. In fact, poking holes in them separates the wheat from the chaff. It helps to focus our efforts and resources on the best ideas. But, shooting down ideas without presenting alternatives is a purely destructive action. It is the way of an uncreative lazy person with nothing of value to add to the dialog. And, it has serious insidious effects that undermine the objective.
At best, I can compare and contrast two ideas in my head: one that someone else has proposed and the other is my own. This left-brain driven analysis makes me seek out differences between the two ideas and causes me to fixate on the flaws in the proposed idea. Flaws that I then use to dismiss the idea entirely as not worthwhile. This reductionist approach is second nature to us all. It is the way we were taught to solve problems in school and college and at work. It is easier to do than to find areas of agreement between the ideas to build upon.
Evaluating ideas in this fashion, though, has a chilling effect. It stops cold any thoughts that might have built upon the valuable aspects of the original idea. It throws out the baby with the bathwater. The idea gets dismissed entirely. Its valuable aspects lost for future consideration. It suppresses the expression of new ideas from others. People get the message that their thoughts are not sophisticated enough. They might feel unfairly dismissed, frustrated & resentful directly resulting in less engagement and less cooperation.
Instead, what is required is a structured process of generating ideas, collecting them, organizing them before evaluating them. Creativity is a fragile mechanism that brings a person’s lifetime of experience, memory and perspective together to synthesize an idea. Each one must be allowed expression without instant evaluation or judgment. Each one should be written down so that many more eyes can see it and many more minds can use it as a trigger for their own ideas. The large collection of ideas can then be sourced for the strongest and best to put into practice.
No one person has the wherewithal to understand, much less solve the problems we choose to tackle today. A collective effort is needed. But, when we kill ideas with snide snarky condescension we undermine our collective objective. Instead we must make every effort to promote idea generation. Be constructive in our commentary of others. No doubt, it takes greater effort to do this. It slows us down. But, we need slowing down so that our haste doesn’t make waste.