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Saturday, July 17, 2004
Maintaining The Spirit of Innovation
Successful lean programs depend on vigorous employee involvement. Rich Weissman discusses how to maintain a strong culture of innovation

Employees often experience something unique in the lean process that works well, and quick successes build enthusiasm. After the novelty wears thin, there can be a steady decrease in the innovative attitude that needs to be sustained for lean to be successful.

Organizations have to maintain a spirited culture of innovation where all employees, not just those on the factory floor, are engaged and dedicated to identifying lean opportunities. Chances for continued lean success includes building an environment that supports and rewards idea generation, expands the concept of lean into non-traditional areas, and provides clear and stable leadership.

Creative ideas are at the heart of innovation. "Ideas are the realm of the kingdom," says Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman, the Berkeley, CA, author who specializes in human capital issues. "Idea generation and creativity in the workplace fuel lean initiatives." Goman feels organizations need passion to generate creative ideas. This passion can be both from the top down, such as broad efforts led by the CEO, to one supervisor on the manufacturing floor who tries to build enthusiasm with small groups. She feels that employees need to have an emotional attachment to the workplace, and there needs to be a safe environment where ideas can be discussed and built upon. "Most creative thinking happens by chance, through informal interactions of employees and a sense of community," says Goman. "Employees cannot do it alone. Creative collaboration is the key."

Bill Schwartz, senior partner and managing director of the Durham, NC, lean consultancy TBM Consulting Group, notes that during the early stages of a lean initiative there is typically high enthusiasm and rapid improvement, as there may be easy opportunities identified for initial lean projects. "These projects can be executed with good results without challenging too many closely held practices or management policies," says Schwartz. "Culturally, these early adapters are willing to move forward and make improvements while the other managers may watch from the sideline to see if this is just a fad or a long term initiative."

Schwartz feels that oftentimes the second year of a lean initiative becomes a turning point, with some programs continuing aggressively and some the victim of eroding enthusiasm. "The law of diminishing returns does not apply to continuous improvement," says Schwartz. Increased productivity drives innovation to the forefront giving companies the opportunity to seize market growth. Transitioning lean thinking and business process changes into traditionally non-lean activities can be a challenge. Front-end processes like product development and product lifecycle management, often including suppliers and customers, can be beneficiaries of automated systems that simplify and streamline existing business processes.

There is a need for strong leadership to keep the focus and the momentum. "Most management discourages new ideas and block creativity due to fear of failure," says Goman. "Some in the organization penalize risk taking, or don't give credit where credit is due, shutting down the creative process and hurting the organization. Training will help, but it often falls short", according to Goman. "Brainstorming is an important part of the creative process, but many companies do it poorly. Having a breakthrough idea is a catalyst for change," says Goman.

Source:, here.
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