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Steven Spear

Steven Spear: Innovation is the reward of mastery

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Friday, May 14, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

There is a conventional wisdom that ‘lean’ and other efforts towards process excellence and ‘innovation’ conflict, the former about standardization and rigidity, the latter about free-flowing creativity.

There are reasons for those wisdoms, but they miss the significant complement between rigor in design and speed in improvement.

Lean grew out of efforts in the 1980s to understand Toyota’s success catching American auto makers. People found approaches, particularly in the shop floor environment that allowed select organizations to operate with far greater stability and far less chaos than was the norm elsewhere. That stability and order led to far better productivity and quality. These approaches included:

— Simple continuous flows in lieu of job shops.
— Self synchronizing pull in lieu of fragile pushed schedules.
— Well choreographed standard work (plus cells and 5S) in lieu of improvisation.

That these system engineering tools create order in lieu of chaos likely encourages the idea of rigidity.

The contrasting impression is that ‘innovation,’ the invention of new ideas and approaches, occurs through spontaneous, idiosyncratic inspiration. The source of this perception likely is that comparing the start and the end of the innovative process shows such a marked change.

Both representations are overly distilled.

Both for attaining exceptional performance and achieving bona fide inspiration, learning is required–new ideas and approaches have to be discovered and invented if change is to occur. (If no new knowledge were required, it would beg the question, why were people using inferior approaches when superior ones were already known?).

In general, how does learning occur? It requires that people have ‘a way,’ they try it, find it faulting, find the sources of its flaws, and make adjustments to correct those shortcomings. It can be deliberate (think a series of experiments) or trial and error (a child learning to walk) or in between (learning to ride a bicycle or learning a foreign language as an adult).

Common across the examples are variation and iteration on the way to discovery.

As for the specifics of ‘lean’ and ‘innovation.’

In actual practice, Toyota didn’t and doesn’t use ‘lean’ tools as the terminus of its improvement efforts. Rather, it works very hard to stabilize systems as a precursor for seeing what is wrong in its best known approach (absent that initial stabilization, any improvement might actually be ‘tweaking,’ a random reaction to random noise).

Likewise, even the most innovative are incremental learners, albeit with great speed and without let up.

Monet, for example, did studies of light, perspective, and depth fo field by setting up easels to paint the same subject, modifying one variable (e.g., painting the same building on one easel in the morning, on one easel at noon, and the same building on the third painting in the afternoon). Rightly famocus for the Pieta at the Vatican. Less well celebrated are the countless sketches, drawings, models, and prototypes that were precursors for the final product.

In sum, excellence depends on learning, and learning is an iterative, compounding process, one experience building for the last building on the one before that. Only stability, no compounding. No stability, no solid basis for discovery.

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