Are You Killing Shop Floor Innovation?

We take a look at the warning signs of a shop floor stifling innovation, and see what you can do to find success through innovation.

 By Kristin McLane, President of CIMx Software

I love ideas.  Ideas and opinions, even ones I don’t agree with, provide the spark and fuel for innovation and growth.  That’s what makes ideas so powerful (even bad ideas…)

Are you killing innovation on your shop floor?  Illustration by www.colourbox.com

Are you killing innovation on your shop floor? Illustration by http://www.colourbox.com

In an article posted on The Build Network, Ilan Mochari explored new technology and the market.  Originally, I wanted to write a defense of technology, especially from companies reluctant (even fearful) of new technology.  As Mochari explains, many businesses fear change, even change for the better.  This isn’t prudence, reluctance or worry, many businesses, even manufacturers, praise innovation and growth, then build a culture that stifles new ideas and change.  It’s a powerful idea… we are all sharing a grand delusion (hurray for innovation!), then collectively ignore the hypocrisy (hurray for innovation, just not here!)

In his article, Mochari cites a blog by Ben Horowitz discussing the ways in which many companies stifle innovation and growth.  He calls it the, “Can-Do vs. Can’t-Do Culture” and discusses, “… a movement to replace today’s startup culture of hope and curiosity with one of smug superiority,” (ouch).  Horowitz reflects on how many businesses approach technology.  As I (and Horowitz) see it, technology should be used to find a “better way to do things,” but in many companies (especially big companies) there is such a rigorous vetting of ideas (even good ones) innovation is stifled.

Killing Innovation In Your Business

Horowitz makes a number of good points – points we run into every day, with customers, competitors, prospects, and even ourselves.  Consider this:

  •  It is extremely difficult to find a better way to do things, but it can and has been done.

Horowitz is right.  Many companies fail to fully embrace the potential offered by technology and innovation because they are missing the opportunity – the “better” offered by a solution.  They install technology for technology’s sake, never really embracing innovation.

Take some Manufacturing Execution System (MES) projects we’ve encountered.  Many MES providers or consultants sell their technology by imitating your current operations on a computer screen – giving you a “pretty” solution that doesn’t offer a better way to do things.  It makes the customer “feel” happy because it mixes the familiar with JUST enough of the new.  Solutions like this won’t work for long.  Here’s why –

You have an issue on the shop floor.  A work station operator needs a quality inspector to approve a change in the operation.  Without a shop floor system, employees call, email or wander around till they find a Quality Engineer (QE).  An MES might automatically notify the QE of a problem, or provide an entirely new system of notification and approval (with a number of forms and steps in the system) but this isn’t embracing innovation.  A more efficient process is to provide the QE with real-time build information so they can proactively eliminate problems before they happen, and provide the ability to remotely approve change when possible.

Technology, including an MES (or any other electronic solution), should provide a better way to do things, not offer an entirely new process that simply mirrors the current process.  Your MES should help you do your work better, faster and with fewer errors, and not replace one piece of work with another.

  • Big companies have trouble innovating.

From our experience, in a big company it seems like everyone either needs their hands in an idea or they want the chance to destroy it.  Some want to ensure the project makes their career, and others are naysayers who make themselves important by focusing on the flaws in every idea.

Make an effort to promote a culture of innovation and build a competitive advantage for your company. Illustration by www.colourbox.com

Make an effort to promote a culture of innovation and build a competitive advantage for your company. Illustration by http://www.colourbox.com

Most times, innovation doesn’t look promising at first.  There are growing pains, and phases of development.  An MES purchase for most manufacturing companies starts as a daunting list of 400 requirements, each line item categorized, prioritized and meticulously measured.  The project started with great ideas built on potential, solutions and dreams, but as more voices and opinions get piled on top, the potential gets narrowed and innovation is stifled.

A committee is formed or a consultant brought in, and the list (that massive, all-inclusive master list) begins to look more like a doctoral dissertation than your production floor.  By the time the call goes out to vendors to make the dream a reality – it has become an arduous task nearly devoid of innovation.  You end up with a project not looking for innovation, just mapped to a spreadsheet with requirements you can check off.

Consider this, if you need 4 hours to demo an MES and see all your requirements, you are asking for so much that you will never be able to see a return on that system, and you’ve just ripped the potential “better” from the project.

Why do we innovate a shop floor like that?  This process just feeds the troll-like naysayers and dream-killers.  When buying a car, you will need the 15,000 to 20,000 parts in the engine, but you don’t bring a checklist of those items to the car dealer.  Auto makers build cars to perform and last using all those parts.  You check the handling, the comfort and the feel of the car, make sure it has your key requirements (perhaps a moon roof), and perhaps verify a few items on the list against the industry standard.  The massive “List” is a weapon for the naysayers… keep it simple and focus on key requirements.  Let innovation thrive before you drown it!

Find an MES vendor you can trust to help you navigate the process.  The system that provides the most return for you is the one that best fits the innovative idea you had when you started.  Ensure the system meets the standard MES requirements, and let the vendor concentrate on your use of the end product rather than a checklist.  As Horowitz says, “We hurt innovation by focusing on what it can’t do, rather than what it does or could do.”

 Build your shop floor through innovation

Businesses grow and thrive through innovation and new ideas, but those that rely on a “Can’t-do culture” stifle innovation, promote cynical sarcasm and focus on limits.  The truth is, the most successful companies promote innovation, and find a way to nurture it without sacrificing the core business.

Even bad ideas have potential, and hiding inside what seems like a completely ludicrous piece of business insanity may be a concept that takes your company to the next level.  Early in a project, especially an MES project, let innovation shine and see where it takes you.  Look for the opportunity to improve, and make sure you aren’t embracing change simply because it’s change.

Find a way to do more than just admire innovation from a distance, but embrace it.  Listen to innovation and ideas (even ones that seem bad) with an open mind.  Nurture ideas, don’t stifle them.  Are you curious to know more, or see how you can embrace innovation without hurting the bottom line or sacrificing production?  Ask us how we can help through our phased implementation process or innovative Quantum paperless manufacturing system.

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