Why can’t we innovate - our daily work?

Improving our daily work is often called continuous improvement or from the Japanese, Kaizen. These concepts started with Deming’s quality management work in Japan and his “Plan -> Do -> Check -> Act” process. Plan the change, Do the change, Check whether the results are as expected, Act to modify the change as required and repeat. The amazing point here is how fast the changes can be made when allowed. An example of this can be found in the book Lean Thinking by Womack and Jones;

“When they arrived at the plant around 10:00pm, the Japanese team took one look at the cell and pronounced it “no good”…. it would be necessary to move all the machines immediately. Koenigsaecker and Pentland had done no preparation for the visit and they knew the union leaders would be upset about the abrupt changes (which they were), but it was also clear this was the test: “Would we do immediately exactly what they told us?” So everyone pitched in to reconfigure the cell and by 2:00am it was running again, with results far better than before.” 

The factory managers rearranged the machines on the shop floor immediately starting, at 10:00pm at night, knowing that the Union, and probably many others, would not be happy. If we had a good idea on making a change to a process, machine or system in our organization how long would it take to make the change? What approvals would be required? Typically, the answer is that it would take a long time and there would be a business case involved plus countless meetings.

It is even harder if we require changes to processes or systems in other departments to align to our changes. We run into the slow decision making problem because we need cross organizational silo agreement. This is a major downside of vertical silo structures. The other departments don’t see a benefit for them and refuse to make the change even if the total organization sees a much larger total benefit. The Prisoner’s Dilemma problem kicks in again. Much of the time it just gets too hard. In the end we tinker with what we have control over, but the, if only everyone would work together changes, which produce a better result are never made.

The answer is not to create a central “Innovation Center of Excellence”. The first thing this team does is set up a suggestion box, but because nothing is actioned the suggestions soon stop. The Innovation Center becomes another silo-ed shared service group that is disconnected with the day to day activity. The answer lies in concepts like Kaizen Blitz by Laraia, Moody and Hall, where the people who do the work are involved in making the improvements. A Kaizen Blitz is run for three to four days and generates productivity improvements in the 50+% range. It provides a massive morale boost at the same time.