Category Archives: Innovation

The Ergonomics of Innovation

The Ergonomics of Innovation by Hayagreeva Rao and Robert Sutton

the IHI case teaches us that innovations spread quickly when organizations focus relentlessly on selecting and spreading ideas in ways that ease the burden of thought and action for everyone involved. This mind-set differs from the one that burdens most organizations, where innovation
is seen as difficult, expensive, and protracted. The IHI staff’s ergonomics-of-innovation mind-set focused on making things easier and cheaper for everyone, including the staff itself.

IHI focused on small things that had a big impact without placing a big load on hospital staffs (reducing the number of infections, for example, hinged on frequent and thorough hand washing). In this way, the organization adopted what Karl Weick calls a “small wins” strategy.

Berwick and his team believed that simply asking hospital staffs to “try harder” to save lives wasn’t enough; people need concrete, easily learned and implemented tools.

Related: Saving Lives: US Health Care Improvement5 Million Lives CampaignPBS Documentary: Improving HospitalsHospital Reform – IHI on CBSArticles on Improving Health Care PerformanceDrug Prices in the USAposts on innovation

Seth Godin: Intern Program and the Internet

Learning from a summer intern program:

I was overwhelmed by the quality of what I got back. (The quantity was expected… interesting internships are hard to find). I heard from students on most continents, with a huge variety of backgrounds and life experiences. And these people were smart.

Unable to just pick a PDF or two, I invited the applicants to join a Facebook group I had set up. Then I let them meet each other and hang out online. It was absolutely fascinating. Within a day, the group had divided into four camps:

* The leaders. A few started conversations, directed initiatives and got to work.

If you’re hiring for people to work online, I can’t imagine not screening people in this way. This is the work, and you can watch people do it for real before you hire them.

Excellent post and the advice echoes his advice on hiring: the End of the Job Interview. We have an internship directory, that helps people find opportunities (and those with internships to offer a way to market it) which includes a list of virtual internships.

Related: Seth Godin on Marketing and the InternetInternships IncreasingCurious Cat Management SubReddit

Future Directions for Agile Management

Agile management (agile software development specifically) is something that makes a big difference in my work life. David Anderson consistently provides great ideas on agile management and he does so again in this 90 minute presentation on the future directions for agile. As I learned about agile software development, what I saw was a great implementation of management improvement practices focused on software development that was very compatible with Deming’s management philosophy and lean thinking practices. The Agile manifesto:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

The first line can seem to be at odds, but I think in practice it is not – though I admit it may seem that way based on the importance placed on process by Deming (I think you have to read on agile to understand why this is the case). For my use of agile software develop, a highlight of the most important ideas is:

  • Deliver working systems quickly (with limited features, add features based on user needs) – [management improvement practice: PDSA, pilot ideas on a small scale, go to the gemba (don’t sit in conference rooms talking about what might be an issue for the computer application you want to see in 6 months, create working systems and then continually improve it)]
  • Build systems that cope well with uncertainty and allow for constant continuous improvement of processes (with IT systems that can adjust as needed to changing business conditions and desires) – [continual improvement – what is good enough today is not good enough next year]

Important concepts addressed by agile management: highly collaborative, risk tolerance, systems thinking, customer interaction, craftsmanship ethic [joy in work], eliminate waste. Great quote from the webcast:

What we know about knowledge work, and software engineering, is that coordination cost grow non-linearly with batch size. We’ve known this since Greg Brooks published the Mythical Man Month, probably longer than that. So that is a key difference with manufacturing, coordination costs do not grow with batch size in manufacturing.

Related: Kanban In Software EngineeringManagement Science for Software EngineeringImproving Communicationwebcast of David Anderson talking about applying Agile and Deming’s ideas at MicrosoftWhat is Agile Software Development?

Toyota Winglet – Personal Transportation Assistance

Winglet Personal Mobility Device from Toyota

Toyota has a long term vision. The population of Japan is aging rapidly. Toyota has invested in personal transportation and personal robotic assistance for quite some time. I must admit this new Winglet doesn’t seem like an incredible breakthrough to me (their earlier iUnit seems much better to me – though I am sure much more expensive too). The interest to me is in their continued focus on this market which I think is a smart move. The aging population worldwide (and others) will benefit greatly from improved personal mechanical assistance.

The Winglet is one of Toyota’s people-assisting Toyota Partner Robots. Designed to contribute to society by helping people enjoy a safe and fully mobile life, the Winglet is a compact (you stand just above the wheels and it reaches about the level of your knees) next-generation everyday transport tool that offers advanced ease of use and expands the user’s range of mobility.

The Winglet consists of a body that houses an electric motor, two wheels and internal sensors that constantly monitor the user’s position and make adjustments in power to ensure stability. Meanwhile, a unique parallel link mechanism allows the rider to go forward, backward and turn simply by shifting body weight, making the vehicle safe and useful even in tight spaces or crowded environments.

Toyota plans various technical and consumer trials to gain feedback during the Winglet’s lead-up to practical use. Practical tests of its utility as a mobility tool are planned to begin in Autumn 2008 at Central Japan International Airport (Centrair) near Nagoya, and Laguna Gamagori, a seaside marine resort complex in Aichi Prefecture. Testing of its usefulness in crowded and other conditions, and how non-users react to the device, is to be carried out in 2009 at the Tressa Yokohama shopping complex in Yokohama City.

Toyota is pursuing sustainability in research and development, manufacturing and social contribution as part of its concept to realize “sustainability in three areas” and to help contribute to the health and comfort of future society. Toyota Partner Robot development is being carried out with this in mind and applies Toyota’s approach to monozukuri (“making things”), which includes its mobility, production and other technologies.

Toyota aims to realize the practical use of Toyota Partner Robots in the early 2010s.

On a personal note, I bought some more Toyota stock two weeks ago. The stock had declined a bit recently. Toyota is one of the companies in my 12 stocks for 10 years portfolio.

Related: Toyota Develops Personal Transport Assistance Robot ‘Winglet’No Excessive Senior Executive Pay at ToyotaMore on Non-Auto Toyota

Amazon S3 Failure Analysis

Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) is a service providing web hosting. The cloud computing solution has been used by many organizations successfully. However the solution has experienced some problems including failing for much of the day on July 20th.

Amazon S3 Availability Event

We’ve now determined that message corruption was the cause of the server-to-server communication problems. More specifically, we found that there were a handful of messages on Sunday morning that had a single bit corrupted such that the message was still intelligible, but the system state information was incorrect. We use MD5 checksums throughout the system, for example, to prevent, detect, and recover from corruption that can occur during receipt, storage, and retrieval of customers’ objects. However, we didn’t have the same protection in place to detect whether this particular internal state information had been corrupted. As a result, when the corruption occurred, we didn’t detect it and it spread throughout the system causing the symptoms described above. We hadn’t encountered server-to-server communication issues of this scale before and, as a result, it took some time during the event to diagnose and recover from it.

During our post-mortem analysis we’ve spent quite a bit of time evaluating what happened, how quickly we were able to respond and recover, and what we could do to prevent other unusual circumstances like this from having system-wide impacts. Here are the actions that we’re taking: (a) we’ve deployed several changes to Amazon S3 that significantly reduce the amount of time required to completely restore system-wide state and restart customer request processing; (b) we’ve deployed a change to how Amazon S3 gossips about failed servers that reduces the amount of gossip and helps prevent the behavior we experienced on Sunday; (c) we’ve added additional monitoring and alarming of gossip rates and failures; and, (d) we’re adding checksums to proactively detect corruption of system state messages so we can log any such messages and then reject them.

Finally, we want you to know that we are passionate about providing the best storage service at the best price so that you can spend more time thinking about your business rather than having to focus on building scalable, reliable infrastructure. Though we’re proud of our operational performance in operating Amazon S3 for almost 2.5 years, we know that any downtime is unacceptable and we won’t be satisfied until performance is statistically indistinguishable from perfect.

The failure was significant but in my view the advantages of Amazon S3 are still very significant. A huge advantage is how quickly you can scale if needed be. If your application is not hosted on Amazon S3 and it grows enormously you have to physically deal with buying servers, installing them, installing software… All this takes time. On Amazon S3 when you need the bandwidth you can get it, when you don’t need it you don’t have it sitting around unused. In that way it is very lean, it seems to me.

And while server infrastructure failures are bad, for most organizations the option is not Amazon S3 or some solution that is 100% reliable. Currently it is difficult to keep IT infrastructures online and operating and coping with shifting demand… For many situations Amazon S3 seems to be a great resource. They need to keep improving; and they seem to be doing so. Being open and honest about the challenges is a good sign. And improving the system, not blaming a person is another good sign.

Related: Bezos on the Internet BoomAmazon’s Amazing AchievementBezos on Lean ThinkingCERN Pressure Test Failure12 Stocks for 10 Years Update (June 2008), Amazon is up 116% in the portfolio since 2005, just behind Google and ahead of Petro China

Some Good IT Business Ideas

Paul Graham has some excellent ideas. I have written about some of them previously: Innovation Strategy, What Business Can Learn from Open Source and Google and Paul Graham’s Latest Essay. Y Combinator, which he founded, provides seed funding. Here are some ideas they would like to fund:

Outsourced IT. In most companies the IT department is an expensive bottleneck. Getting them to make you a simple web form could take months. Enter Wufoo. Now if the marketing department wants to put a form on the web, they can do it themselves in 5 minutes. You can take practically anything users still depend on IT departments for and base a startup on it, and you will have the enormous force of their present dissatisfaction pushing you forward.

Online learning. US schools are often bad. A lot of parents realize it, and would be interested in ways for their kids to learn more. Till recently, schools, like newspapers, had geographical monopolies. But the web changes that. How can you teach kids now that you can reach them through the web? The possible answers are a lot more interesting than just putting books online.

Off the shelf security. Services like ADT charge a fortune. Now that houses and their owners are both connected to networks practically all the time, a startup could stitch together alternatives out of cheap, existing hardware and services.

Related: Our Policy is to Stick Our Heads in the SandFind Joy and Success in BusinessInnovative Thinking from Clayton Christensen

Google Knows it is a 2.0 World

You can accomplish a great deal by just talking to people. Google Public Relations:

I did not really expect it, but the next day I got a call from Jeffrey Korn at Google California. He explained that he was the one responsible for building the Google Bookmarks and Google Web History tools. The problem with my extension was something I hadn’t imagined: a scaling problem. Hehe, Google had scaling problems :-).

The gBrain extension creates a lot of bookmarks. Several thousands a month. And the Google bookmarks system was never made with this amount in mind. What made things worse (and I didn’t knew that), the bookmarks are connected to the normal web search. Whenever you use the web search, it checks it against your Google bookmarks. You can easily imagine what problems can come up when you have a several 10 or even 100 thousands of bookmarks…

Jeffery also made a few suggestions how the extension could be changed to make use of their Web history service instead of the bookmarks system. This would avoid the scaling problems. I may consider it some day.

But why am I telling this? Because I’m amazed how Google handled this. Instead of just blocking my extension at their side, or sending me a cease and desist letter they contacted me and asked.

Good for Google. I do find it a bit funny they had a lawyer contact the guy but still Google’s reaction was much better than most companies would be. Companies like Google, Amazon, Lego, New York Times are taking advantage of technology to leverage community efforts to improve the value of their service to customers. This is an important innovation management needs to acknowledge and manage. Or you can be like the poorly managed journal publishers or music industry that are destroying their organizations futures.

Related: Funding Google Gadget DevelopmentInnovative Marketing Podcast (Lego)Innovation at Google

Zipcar Innovation

map of zip cars near the White House

Zipcar is an intriguing idea where you rent cars by the hour. The whole process is a significant change from the previous rental model (gas, parking and insurance included). Zipcar makes deals with local governments to secure zipcar parking near public transportation. They also have deals with universities, apartment buildings and businesses all of which provides a new level of easy customer access with cars available in many locations. The internet is used to schedule and provide up to date information. It is a great idea for those in cities where you can design your life so a car is rarely needed. But having access to a car in those times can be very convenient.

The images show zipcars available near the White House in Washington DC. The White House is in the middle of the bottom of the image (Lafayette Square is immediately north of the White House).

The rates are not cheap when you look at per hour costs. But when you look at replacing the need for a car the savings can be large (if you do not drive too much). And for those that doing without a car is not realistic zipcar can be used for any needs for a second car. It is still a pretty large change in mindset. To try and help people give the idea a try Zipcar is trying the Zipcar Low-Car Diet challenge.

You agree to keep your car keys in your junk drawer for just one month, from July 21st through August 15th. In return, you get a loaded public transit pass, a free 1-year Zipcar membership, some driving time and more goodies that we’ll tell you about a little later.

During the month, we’ll ask that you check in and let us know how your diet’s going. You can send us emails, even video clips, to share your thoughts and stories. We’ll post excerpts on our website to help keep everyone motivated!

Related: Traffic Congestion Non-SolutionAirfare Innovation ExampleUrban PlanningDeming on Innovation Continue reading

Continual Improvement

Dr. Deming used the term continual improvement (rather than continuous improvement) later in his life because that would include continuous and dis-continuous improvement (innovation, etc.). I use continual improvement for that reason also. I think the improvement process

  • must be never ending
  • must focus daily on how any process can be improved
  • must focus on adopting improvement systemically (not just locally, by one person or team)
  • must focus on discontinuous improvement which could include high energy kaizen events and dramatic innovation
  • must include a study phase (PDSA) where the improvements are evaluated to determine whether they actually achieved the predicted results
  • and must include improvement of the improvement process itself

To me, continual improvement encompasses both continuous and discontinuous improvement.

Reflecting on: Continuous Improvement vs. Continual Improvement [the broken link was removed]

Related: Process Improvement and InnovationBetter and DifferentKaizen the Toyota WayChange is not ImprovementThink Long Term Act DailyEncourage Improvement Action by Everyone

Engineering Innovation

. I was giving a talk, while I was working for the Office of Secretary of Defense Quality Management Office, on Using Quality to Develop an Internet Resource (back before blogs, but after the web, in 1999). I was trimming things as I spoke and cut the tidbit about DARPA and the internet because I figured everyone already knew that (and I had to trim as I was speaking). In discussions afterwards I found many didn’t know DARPA’s involvement.

Related: Better and DifferentWater and Electricity for AllGoogle Innovation

Dean Kamen Lends a Hand, or Two (August 2007):
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