Companies often believe that innovation must encompass sweeping changes to product lines or methods, but the Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products.” Nowhere does it state that innovation must be vast or earth-shaking. In fact, the majority of innovations fit the dictionary definition better than they fit the popular imagination.
Celebrating Big Change, Ignoring Small Innovation Gains
As Susan Cain writes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “If genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, then as a culture we tend to lionize the one percent.”
But should we? Isn’t there value in saving a small percent of the cost to produce a high-volume process or product due to a methodology change, or one that solves a problem as valuable as a new product idea that may never make it to market?
But where do we celebrate the small changes that save thousands or millions of dollars over the years? In most cases, these changes are overlooked or never celebrated at all.
Always Try New Things
Taking innovation in small, steady chunks doesn’t mean forgoing innovation completely. As Peter Drucker said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Of course you do. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he famously said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Change those words around to instead read, “One small step for efficiency, one giant leap toward profitability,” or “…productivity” or whatever you choose to measure.
How Does Innovation Drive Growth and Continuous Improvement?
Even lean manufacturing and Six Sigma include “continuous improvement” as key tenets. Neither methodology suggests throwing out a process and starting over. They don’t suggest that only the latest ideas and products will work. What they do both recommend are small, controlled improvements.
Stabilize the process. Then measure and evaluate your results. Only then should you move on to the next incremental change, or go back to the original method. There’s no shame in trying something that doesn’t work. The only shame is not trying at all.
Does Innovation Work in Any Industry?
Fashion designer Marc Jacobs once said, “Innovation is an evolutionary process, so it’s not necessary to be radical all the time.” His words apply equally as well to manufacturing design as they do to fashion design.
Planning for innovation is important, but before pushing for entirely new products, new features or new processes, be sure your customer needs them or will use them. If not, maybe it’s time to slow down or simply think about smaller, more incremental changes. Maybe a smaller change or a simple tweak would give you or your customer the hoped-for result.
Science Fiction Speaks to Manufacturing
We tend to celebrate the big idea, regardless of how it might affect the bigger picture. We look for major innovations – the next big thing. But maybe, just maybe, we should stick closer to home. Maybe the answer lies in small yet mighty changes. After all, it was award-winning science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein who said, “Progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” If a science fiction writer can advocate for small changes that create big results, who are we to argue?