Tag Archives: Innovation

Book Review: “the other side of innovation: SOLVING THE EXECUTION CHALLENGE”

OtherSideofInnovationNo one can climb a mountain for you. You have to do it for yourself.

The fundamental assumption that “the other side of innovation: SOLVING THE EXECUTION CHALLENGE” is based on is that your organization is attempting innovation initiatives beyond its current capabilities. Capabilities that you are not willing to develop internally. In other words you are attempting to climb Mt. Rainier, to use the authors’ opening example, when you are neither fit for the challenge nor possess the skills for it. Think about this for a second. Contemplate the likely outcome of such an attempt. If it doesn’t kill you it will most assuredly maim you leaving you worse off for having tried.

However, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble “see no reason why established organizations should be incapable of executing any innovation initiative”. So, what is the solution these authors dictate? After 10 years of field research at “[innovative companies] as diverse as Allstate, BMW, Harley-Davidson, IBM, Nucor, and Timberland”, they recommend that you “Build the Right Team” and “Run a Disciplined Experiment”. Let us understand something clearly: it doesn’t matter how many expert mountain guides you hire or how well you plan your expedition, if you are not fit, if you do not possess the necessary skills, it will fail… disastrously. So, shame on the authors for making a flawed assumption and then impelling organizations to attempt such challenges.

To be fair, they have made valid observations of several crucial shortcomings in organizations today:

  • It is not an organization’s creativity and technology that falls short, it is its management’s capability: leaders just aren’t trained to drive innovation.
  • Organizations vest most of their innovation efforts in defining opportunity and not much in executing it. This is tied to the previous point.
  • As companies mature, they disengage from innovation efforts, relying on profit from increasing operational efficiency.

These are problems that organizations have to overcome internally through rigorous self reflection which leads to creating projects that (re)build the organization’s fitness and skills. They can thus expand their core competencies and cultivate deep domain knowledge necessary to address the total challenge of innovation. Not do it through hired outside experts or mergers and acquisitions.

Hugely successful innovation initiatives in recent memory such as Toyota’s Lexus or Scion, or Apple’s iPod, iPhone, iPad or iCloud have been internal to their respective companies. Neither Toyota nor Apple were first to market with these products. Each took its time to develop domain knowledge; stretching itself through multiple learning cycles before introducing class redefining products.

The authors underestimate and trivialize the value of such continuous improvement programs even when their own studies at Nucor and Deere & Company demonstrate successful outcomes. In fact they dismiss their own observations of successful innovation initiatives at many companies in favor of “What If?” scenarios. Never mind whether these hypothetical initiatives were ones these companies might have pursued but didn’t for lack of capability. They never say so.

The one example the authors cite where a transformative innovation initiative was required: the New York Times. But, this was necessary as the landscape of the entire newspaper industry was unexpectedly and fundamentally changed by an unaccounted force: the internet. An extremely rare event that no book or expert can help to plan for.

In any case, given that the book’s fundamental premise is faulty, the structure built upon it is rickety at best. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good ideas, but they are either poorly communicated or poorly reasoned or both. The authors assume an unjustified authoritative tone that often patronize the reader on his/her complaint (constructed in the authors’ imagination). There is a smugness in the manner they criticize their partner companies’ approach to innovation. I wonder if any of them will have these researchers back to work with them again. And, they fail to properly attribute their learning cycle – Plan-Do-Study-Act – to its developers and advocates: Walter Shewhart and W Edward Deming.

My suggestion is you pass on reading this book. It teaches the wrong lessons. Learn the proper way to execute innovation initiatives by benchmarking the best in class. Two excellent reads are “The Toyota Way” & “The Elegant Solution”. Develop your organization’s management foundations and knowledge building efforts with “Out of the Crisis”. There is a tough climb ahead, but not an insurmountable one provided you start preparing for it now.

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Pursuit of Perfection

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.