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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Lean is an Innovation in Thinking Which Will Foster Many Other Innovations

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I agree that many people get confused on the relationship between lean and innovation.  Steve Spear explained very well that underlying this is a confusion about what innovation is.  In reality the greatest innovators are disciplined thinkers who try incremental experiments one by one learning from each.  Thomas Edison was famous for his discipline and for learning from all his failed light bulbs before finally finding something that worked.  The something that worked represented accumulated learning from years of smaller experiments that proved incremental principles and that showed what does not work.  Unfortunately when we see the results of a big innovation that happens to succeed we assume in a eureka movement a brilliant inventor happened to have an inspiring thought, went to the lab, mocked it up, and the rest is history.  There probably are a small number of cases like that, but I suspect extremely small.  I think this misconception represents our fantasy in the silver bullet.  Create the right creative environment and higher the right kind of people and turn them loose in the lab and wait for the big idea that turns around the company to incubate.  On the shop floor send in the brilliant innovative six-sigma squad armed with high tech statistical analysis tools and get the big bank process improvement.  We love home runs,  we grow impatient watching the bases fill up with base hits from time to time leading to a score.

I have faced this misunderstanding in all applications of lean, but one particularly interesting is product development itself.  For example, we have been working with Solar Turbine, Inc. a company that makes gas turbine generators to create electricity.   The products are large and technically complex–like small jet engines.  They require remarkable understanding of physics and very precise tolerances.  Solar has consistently stayed ahead of the competition on the efficiency-performance-cost curve and dominated their market segment, but they wanted more.  Development projects were routinely late and missed cost targets.  When we worked with them on understanding the current process and envisioning a future process it was clear that the current process was unstable and poorly understood filled with waste.  Now that sound rather analytical but the reality was that waste was people doing their own thing and not talking to each other in the right ways at the right times.  It was handoffs from department to department with little feedback until a problem required major rework.  The solution was to get a core cross-functional team together with a common vision for the project and then to make the problems visible week by week in an obeya (big visual meeting room) so the team could solve the problems in real time.  Immediately lead time on the first project was reduced by 30 percent and all targets were met.  Now this was the first step.  The team that worked on the pilot projects, and particularly the leaders, had now learned some things and needed to spread what they learned to other projects.  They are well on the way of doing that after three years and operating at a high level of performance like never before.  The stability and efficiency has allowed them to focus on the tough technical issues that require innovation.

Looking ahead they wanted to take lean concepts to the advanced R&D stage.  We all discovered that there is some good stuff in the labs but little gets through to actual products and when the products are late they collapse the process and stop considered new ideas.  In a classic fire fighting mode resources go into fighting today’s fires rather than putting time upfront into exploration. Some  invention was happening in a vacuum in an unplanned way.  By explicitly developing a product plan and having some control over timing and resource allocation they can actually plan for resources put into innovation.  Moreover using set-based concepts they plan on exploring multiple alternatives early in the process front end loading programs so they can include more proven innovative ideas in the project.

Hopefully this one example makes it clear that innovation and stability are not opposites but complements.  When organizations are disorganized they regress into fire fighting modes, not innovation modes.  People who think great thoughts and are somehow isolated from the fray rarely see their great thoughts appear in actual products.  Waiting for the big hitter innovation is like gambling.  Some times you win big but most people go home broke losers.  Lean is itself a fundamental innovation in thinking for most companies and if approached in the right way will foster many other innovations.

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