Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Obstacle to Innovation #1 Process & procedures – “This is the way it’s always been done”

When you say “we want to be innovative,” it’s like declaring “I want to be successful.” It may be a good beginning, but it doesn’t really help in deciding what to do.

Nevertheless, when we’ve talked with some senior managers in healthcare, they often express their visions in this kind of high-level dreaminess. Then, they tell their teams that they want more innovative ideas – “Think differently! Be the change! Go outside the box!”

But, in the end, we are unclear what this means. And finally, we drift back to the familiar and the tried-and-true.

Dr. Paddy Miller and his colleague Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain have written about this obstacle.  They say, “Asking for innovation is not enough because ‘innovation’ is not just one thing. There is radical and incremental innovation. There is innovation in marketing, finance, product development, branding, process, services, experiences, and even in the way we lead our businesses. There is innovation aimed at becoming market leaders, and innovation aimed at just keeping up with the Joneses. There is innovation for the sake of improving efficiency, increasing satisfaction, reducing costs, retaining employees, attracting talent, becoming ecological or improving images. Innovation comes in so many guises, and can be pursued in so many ways, that it is easy to get lost if you don’t have a proper idea of where you want to go. For this reason, it is the first task of an Innovation Architect to craft an innovation strategy that dovetails with the company’s strategic playbook, and that is specific enough to help people make operational decisions about how to pursue innovation.”

So, processes and procedures must be addressed to overcome the obstacle.

Here’s an example from Chicago public schools.  Officials could not say how much the system spent on computers because of the chaotic state of – you guessed it – their computer accounting. Computer purchases were listed under various categories in different funds and labeled in different ways.  For example, computer giant IBM was listed five ways in the computer, as IBM, IBM Corp., IBM Corporation, International Business and International Business Machine.  Because it was the way it was always done, each entry was under a different vendor number.

Then, there’s another story that’s now become a legend on the need to challenge the conventional wisdom.

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That is an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that is the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads. Why did the English build them like that?  Because the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways built the first rail lines, and that is the gauge they used. Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used the same wheel spacing.


Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they all had the same wheel spacing. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot.

Now, the twist to the story...there is an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and horses' behinds.

When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. Thiokol makes the SRBs at their factory at Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major design feature of what is arguably one of the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's behind.

We aim to break this obstacle with N-of-8, and create fundamental shifts to the way we do things in technology, science, and healthcare. The new technological breakthroughs that result could be as game-changing as the Internet, the PC, digital camera, ATM, email, voice mail, or flash memory to name a few.  Consider the product revolutions like Apple’s iPod, iTunes, and iPhone.  What about the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight?  Imagine the societal impact of the “Pill” in the ‘60s and Viagra in the ‘90s.

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