Managing Innovation

TQM, ISO 9000, Six Sigma: Do Process Management Programs Discourage Innovation?

“In the appropriate setting, process management activities can help companies improve efficiency, but the risk is that you misapply these programs, in particular in areas where people are supposed to be innovative,” notes Benner. “Brand new technologies to produce products that don’t exist are difficult to measure. This kind of innovation may be crowded out when you focus too much on processes you can measure.”

Well I don’t think the idea that innovation is needed was not understood decades ago. It seems to be one of the typical refrains when people want to change – oh that old stuff was only about x and now we need to focus on Y.

I commented on this before: Fast Company Interview: Jeff Immelt

As to focusing only on measurable items: yeah that has been recognized as bad, again for decades.

Says Benner: “Our message is this: Companies that have process management in one area must realize that it can bleed into other areas of the company, and you must prevent that from happening. Use these approaches where they make sense — and deliberately do not have them in areas that are focused on innovation.”

I disagree. Managing processes is a good idea. You manage appropriately to the process, of course.

Google has a very well known management commitment to allowing engineering one day a week to work on personal projects:

Google engineers all have ’20 percent time’ in which they’re free to pursue projects they’re passionate about. This freedom has already produced Google News, Google Suggest, AdSense for Content, and Orkut – products which might otherwise have taken an entire start-up to launch.

You manage processes such as thinking up a new way to use computer technology differently than you manage a process to manufacture tires. But the idea that you don’t manage and improve the process just because the process seems discontinuous is a mistake.

Some thoughts on managing innovation:

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6 Responses to Managing Innovation

  1. Thomas Pain says:

    Having spent a decade in corporate R&D (as opposed to academia), in a company where “quality” was literally a bad word, I couldn’t agree more. You’re comment that “the idea that you don’t manage and improve the process just because the process seems discontinuous is a mistake” is spot on.

    The idea of process improvement is to improve efficiency and effectiveness—do the right thing, and do it faster and/or cheaper. Not only is this compatible with invention and innovation activities, if anything it is more necessary in such activities than in manufacturing. It’s just harder to measure the results. In invention and innovation activities, where the output is knowledge rather than physical product, it’s very easy accidentally retrace one’s steps, or repeat work that others have done. I’ve seen entirely too many researchers proud of their work, who were just spinning in circles (not improving spirals). Without appropriate measures of the growth of knowledge, they—and, especially, management—had no way of knowing what was improvement and what was just lateral movement.

    I think that this point is driven home in two good books: Managing R&D Performance the Juran Way, which gives examples from the most successful innovation companies in the world, and Fourth Generation R&D, which provides a nice framework for how to improve R&D along the same lines as TQM (by knowing your end users and collaborating with them in the early stages of the invention and innovation cycles).

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