Innovation and Lean


Together We Innovate

The WSJ has a Saturday report section on business and innovation, including the article I've linked to here (which can also be found here for free). Lean and a focus on process and standardized work is sometimes criticized as a method that stifles innovation. I think most of us in the Lean world don't see it this way, that standard process and methodology can actually help CREATE innovation. I think Toyota proves this out, both in their factories and their product development process. It's a topic that our good friend Kevin Meyer often writes about over at Evolving Excellence.

The article lists the three major dysfunctions that hamper innovation as:

  • No communication
  • Bad gatekeepers (ones who are often risk adverse)
  • Insularity (informal networks that fall apart when individuals leave)

I can't see how Lean or standard processes would create any of those three dysfunctions. So maybe we can stop blaming Lean for a lack of innovation? Those three dysfunctions are just as likely to be there in a traditional organization or management system.

The article doesn't talk about Lean and I'm not going to claim that Lean is a cure all, but there are some Lean aspects to the “solutions” that the WSJ authors suggest.

Some of their solutions include:

  • “Rapidly test and refine ideas.” Rather than long, slow batch processes where ideas are thrown from one silo of experts to the next, the suggest fast cycles with teams that cross functional boundaries. The Lean concepts of flow and batch reduction, along with cycle time reduction, will lead to improved processes, including that of innovation.
  • “Make collaboration easy.” This reminds of a Deming idea about motivating people. You can't motivate them, you can only avoid demotivating, which this article states.

The Lean approach and the Deming philosophy already give us some direction for how to improve processes, including innovation. How much more “new” research and insight do we need? How about we try implementing methods that have already been given to us?

Do you have any examples of how Lean and innovation work hand in hand? Have you seen lean or process methods be stifling in your environment? Click “comments” to share.

The report is written in collaboration with the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Sloan Management Review, so I'll give a shout out to my alma mater.

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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