Teaching innovation: Creating the right environment is often all you need
July 22, 2010 by Dick Morley
I recently travelled to Winnipeg on a manufacturing rescue mission to discuss the future of manufacturing and innovation in Manitoba.
I, along with the well-renowned automation consultant Jim Pinto, went there at the behest of the Winnipeg Industrial Technology Centre. This organization provides technical services to Manitoba manufacturers as part of an economic development mandate. They work with local companies to create awareness of advanced technologies and stimulate competitive advantages in the global economy.
We spent several morning sessions with local manufacturers during which I discussed "manufacturing in the global age", which offered insight into the economics of global manufacturing, and "High-value manufacturing in Manitoba", which was intended to address the potential role of leading-edge technology in the province. In these talks, Jim Pinto and I presented opposite views – a strategy intended to introduce us, and the audience, to new thoughts.
Since our formal schedule included only a half-day of morning discussions, we suggested a fireside chat in the afternoon. After all, why waste the day? The morning sessions were well populated by a good variety of manufacturing entities in Manitoba. The afternoon fireside chat, however, had about a half-dozen attendees.
The afternoon chat centred around innovation and its importance to Manitoba and Winnipeg. Most of the questions circled around how to teach innovation – questions that Jim and I could not really answer. We vacillated and finally admitted that we did not know how to teach innovation – innovation may be an inherited talent which only needs exposure and exercise to come forth. Even to us, this sounded like a lame explanation.
Long ago, we did open the door to innovation with three companies. The most notable example is of a metal casting company that was slowly declining in revenue and profit. Luckily, the company was privately owned. The family hired three consultants to help turn the company around with a strong innovation thrust. We got nowhere.
Finally, we went down to a Boston club and had several martinis. This constrained our busy brains and forced us to look at the obvious. From this martini thinking, we recommended that the marketing department at the company use only Apple computers. We gave engineers fully-loaded MS PCs and outsourced the financials. We recommended that none of the computers have software. Instead, they should have a budget to let the users buy the software they needed. We also recommended that laptops be put into the company library for sign-out – even to take home. These recommendations were modified, but the core idea remained.
Over the next decade, the company grew several times and is now a showpiece for innovation and manufacturing in the New Hampshire area. Several other such examples were discussed. One was an X-ray company and the other an airplane manufacturer. We gave the employees the tools that allowed innovation to grow. Bottoms up!
As an example, I noticed that the morning meeting had no open laptops but mine. I am used to meetings where 30 percent of the attendees have open laptops and very casual clothing. Formalities seemed to be important at these government sponsored meetings. We also had trouble getting a discussion going. Finally, we got going with pro-and-con discussions about innovation and specific problems in the manufacturing sector.
Many slogans and buzzwords rain down upon us when we try to make changes. I’m not sure bumper stickers really have a significant effect on manufacturing productivity. One of my favorite bumper stickers is "getting out of the box does not mean going to the next cubicle."
On a personal note, the airplane trip to Winnipeg was difficult for me. I am handicapped with a bad leg. My right leg has had three knee replacements. So I walk slowly and require wheelchairs. The airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, had a delay of approximately 12 hours. I went back home and had a nap. No wheelchair was available when I returned. I had been due to arrive in Winnipeg in the early afternoon and arrived near midnight. Lately, it seems as though every flight has a black swan event. The red eye has changed to the black eye. But, enough of my complaints…
Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. Email him at email@example.com.