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Mike Rother

Mike Rother: What’s the Difference Between Innovation and Lean?

By Mike Rother, - Last updated: Sunday, May 16, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Question:  What’s the difference between innovation and lean?

We’ve tended to define “lean” as eliminating waste, but that concept is way too limited.

We’ve tended to think of “innovation” as new solutions and levels of performance that come from periodic leaps by certain creative individuals. Like the famous inventors we learn about in school. This concept is also way too limited.

What is innovation?

If you look closely, those lone inventors we see in our mind’s eye are actually standing on the shoulders of hundreds of other individuals who went through thousands of PDCA cycles, which culminated in and made feasible “inventions” like the telephone, the airplane, the personal computer, and so on. Time and selective memory erase the smaller steps and leave us with the faulty concept of innovation as periodic leaps by certain individuals.

A more accurate description of innovation goes something like this:

New solutions and levels of performance, which come from many iterative cycles pointed toward a vision and conducted with special focus and energy.

That’s what Toyota does!

And from carefully observing Toyota I can say:  That’s what Toyota does too. Both lean and innovation involve using people’s ingenuity to iteratively develop ways of achieving something we want but can’t yet do. That could be the ability to travel through the air, to operate an assembly cell with four instead of six operators (at the same output), to economically produce smaller batches (as a step on the way to a 1×1 flow for the customer), and so on.

Whether you’re talking about lean or about innovation, a pivotal question is not so much what you are working on, but how you do it. I find that lean and innovation overlap greatly on this dimension. The routine of innovation and the routine of lean are very similar to one another.

How do you develop innovation through lean, and vice versa?

We often believe that adaptation and innovation are not something that can be mastered, because the kind of practicing that promotes mastery is different from activities that promote discovery, innovation and change. It’s time to discard this old paradigm.

As brain science shows and Toyota demonstrates, inventiveness and creativity are things that almost anyone can learn by practicing a routine like the improvement kata. And… the greater the number of people in your organization who practice and get to higher skill levels with that type of routine:

What creative routine are the people in your company practicing?

Coaching the organization’s members in practicing the improvement kata is a major portion of what managers do in a Toyota-style lean system. Here’s a good way to think about it: All of the managers in your company are teachers, whether consciously or not, because with their words and actions they are teaching their people a mindset and way of approaching problems. If that’s true, then it makes sense to ask:

“What whay of thinking and acting – what kata – do we want to be teaching in our company?”

If you want to create a culture of continuous improvement, you will need to answer that question.

Mike


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