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When to Innovate or Where Is My Running Shirt?

After reading the June 2010 Success Magazine on Innovation, I’ve been thinking about innovation and how it relates to people, productivity and profitability. Not only have I been thinking about it all wrong, I realize that most companies do also. Most of us think of innovation in terms of big ideas, products, and processes. Rarely do organizations connect innovation to people first and foremost. That’s a mistake for several reasons.

Let me illustrate my premise. Business cycles drive employment. That’s why all the business news starts with the negative employment rate, the unEMPLOYMENT rate. When business is up, we add bodies (“positions” in HR lingo) to increase production; when business slows, we cut the easiest P&L item first, people (“positions” in HR lingo). Having participated in several “who are we going to cut” meetings, I know this to be true. In both directions, the actions taken are reactionary.

When people are added, it’s often when some fraction of their output is needed. When people are cut, it’s because some fraction of what they do is not needed. On the upside, the unneeded part is usually filled with unproductive tasks that fill out the workday. Ever hired someone to relieve the stress on an existing employee without completely figuring out what the new person will do? On the downside, the still needed work is thrown on a survivor, with lower productivity, morale, or both, as its result.

Innovation is not a task, a project, or the result of weekend retreat. Innovation is a mindset of not what is, but what could be(1) . It’s proactive. As Theodore Levitt said, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” So if people are needed to DO things, when should you involve people and what’s that have to do with productivity and profitability? This year’s spring cleaning ritual gave me the answer.

Every spring, Laura reminds me of the need to reorganize my closet and drawers. I put it off forever, but once I get everything done, I feel great. I know my dressing time will improve and my attitude is great. Yet when life speeds up again, and it did within a week, clothes out of the dryer start getting shoved into drawers and hanging clothes and gear get put wherever. Pretty soon I need to find something and I can’t, or find myself getting mad at how long it takes me find what I need. Of course, that’s exactly when the boss, my wife, comes by and gives me a hard time for not staying organized.

The answer is to emulate my innovative wife. She innovates by daily thinking about how she can make anything better. She is rarely satisfied with how things ARE. So she rearranges, looks for better tools to handle her responsibilities, and makes time to implement her changes. If something doesn’t quite work, she stays at it until she gets the result she wants.

As a result, she gets more done with less effort, and handles changes in our activity level with less stress than I do. Her “place for everything and everything in its place before you go on to the next thing”, is a classic example of Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing theory in action. Her constant willingness to think, “How can I do this easier, smarter, or better” is a key to obtaining lean productive results throughout the business cycle.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if you or your organization needs any mental spring cleaning:

• How much time do you devote each week to thinking about how to do your job better, smarter, or easier? • How many people in your company do this? • How many job descriptions have process innovation in them? • How many people would say they do their job the same way they did five years ago? • How much is job innovation weighted in performance reviews? • How much of this approach is used when times are good vs. when times are bad?

When organizations think of innovation as a top down, new policy or directive, people suffer. That’s sad, given the great results that happen when innovation is part of everyone’s job. The need for additional resources is minimized in the good times, thus raising profits; the ability to downsize is, therefore, also minimized in the down times, minimizing losses and morale declines.

So don’t limit your innovation to the big product or production breakthrough. Make it part of everyone’s job and see what happens. Now where did I put my Bama running shirt?

(1) See Darren Hardy’s Publisher’s Letter in June 2010 Success Magazine

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