Process Innovation – Don’t Be Afraid to Dream

Earlier in my career, I designed and developed gadgets for the automotive industry.  We sold new technology to every major car company in the world.  That was a great job.  Not only did I get to invent, I also had to test-drive many prototype vehicles – Corvettes, BMW’s, Jaguars, and Neon’s.  (OK, the Neon is not so impressive.)  This is typically what we think of when we talk about innovation.

In the business arena, innovation can take on different personas.  Sure, we still must innovate new products to remain competitive.  But, we must also innovate our processes to remain profitable.  Times have changed and our labor-intensive, paper-pushing processes have become outdated.  Today is the day to re-think and re-engineer our way of delivering value to the consumer.  [As a side note, I suspect process innovation will replace process improvement in the industrial vernacular to differentiate between revolutionary and evolutionary change.]   As I reflect back, I have noted several similarities between product innovation (inventing new stuff) and process innovation (designing efficient workflows).  Here are four that come to mind.

1.  Dream crazy dreams.  It is amazing to me that much of what we have today – iPhones, space tourism, and microwave popcorn – were considered science fiction fifty years ago.  These crazy dreams dreamt by stoned artists and writers, mad scientists, and off-center movie producers have sparked our collective creativity and opened our minds to new concepts, fantastical ideas, and larger-than life possibilities.  It reminds us that innovation begins in taking the time to dream crazy dreams.

2.  Ask dumb questions. One of the great things about what I do is that I get to ask the dumb questions – questions no one else will ask because they challenge the norm.  It takes courage to ask questions in a work environment whose answers are taken for granted. Honestly, it’s not so much that the question is dumb; more often, the answer is dumb.  “Why do we do it like that?”  “Because that is the way we do it here.”  Which of the previous familiar phrases is the dumb one – the question or the answer?  In our roles as leaders, constantly asking why incentivizes our team to re-think our assumption that the world is still flat.

3.  Think big thoughts. Dreaming crazy dreams and asking dumb questions alone do not result in innovation.  Crazy dreams create solutions-based concepts.  Asking dumb questions highlight the problems in need of a solution.  Thinking big bridges the gap between the future-state [crazy] dream and current-state [dumb question] problems.  Thinking big forces us to operationalize our dreams, applying workable solutions to the problems we uncover by asking the dumb questions.  If we can think bigger thoughts, we will begin to innovate.

4.  Act every day.  Innovation is not just a mental exercise in the world of WHAT IF.  True change (the result of innovation) comes in daily turning our big thoughts into action.  I wish innovation were as easy as giving a motivational speech to our team and challenging them to implement our ideas.  But, it is not.  True innovation requires the person with the brilliant idea to work tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to bring that crazy dream into reality.

The innovation continuum is full of irony.  If we could capture the exhilaration of innovation before we dream the crazy dream, then we would never dream.  If we don’t ask dumb questions, we will never learn.  If we don’t think big, we will remain small.  If we don’t act every day, we will not act at all.  The brilliance of innovation is only seen in the rearview mirror.

Jason Kilgore


Tim Tebow as a Process Improvement Specialist? by Jason Kilgore

I like ESPN’s sports talk radio – Mike and Mike, The Herd, and SVP – probably more than I like the actual sporting events.  (It’s more efficient!) For the last five weeks, excluding Penn State, nothing has dominated the air waves like the subject of Tim Tebow.  The Denver Broncos, 5-5 overall, are 4-1 with #15 at the quarterback position.  The debate is whether Tebow’s presence is causal or coincidental.  More interesting to me is how his quarterbacking style serves as process improvement leadership style.  This unconventional QB demonstrates how to lead successful initiatives, whether they be Lean Transformations, Six Sigma, or business process re-engineering.

  1. “Win the crowd and you will win your freedom,” said Proximo to Maximus in the movie Gladiator.   When the Broncos were 1 and 4, Denver fans demanded a change at quarterback by booing Kyle Orton and chanting, “We want Tebow.”  So, out went Orton, in went Tebow.  Jumpstarting cost-saving and quality-enhancing initiatives often require that we lead with that same level of influence.  It is not enough to dictate to our staff the objective.  We must inspire them to achieve great gains.  We can do this by first setting a clear vision of what it is we want to accomplish.  And then, lay out the path to get there.
  2. Determination trumps expertise. The experts say Tim’s throws are inaccurate and his footwork in the pocket is clumsy. What I’ve seen in him, both as a Florida Gator and a Denver Bronco, is a person who is determined to win.  Whether he succeeds long-term is anybody’s guess.  But whatever his future success, it will be the result of his determination rather than his level of expertise.  I read a number of Lean, Six Sigma, and process innovation blogs and forums. I get a HUGE laugh out of the passionate arguments among the self-proclaimed and unemployed experts over the most insignificant aspects of PI methodologies.  This proves to me that so many in my chosen field have yet to figure out this simple truth:  It’s not what you know; it’s what you deliver.
  3. Adapt when the play falls apart. At the end of the recent Brocos / Jets game, the Broncos went 95 yards in the last 58 seconds to score the winning touchdown.  Tebow passed for 35 of those yards and scrambled for 57 of them. Have you ever had a project that obeyed the timeline you set for it? Something always goes wrong. Success is more about our ability to adapt than our ability to follow a plan.

Implementing changes to our business processes is not easy.  The variables are largely unpredictable.  Organizational inertia is inevitable.  But, the leader who can win over his staff, rely on determination rather than expertise, and can adapt to busted plays is the leader who will succeed in bringing about meaningful change.

Jason Kilgore

Author of The Elegant Process

Liberal Timelines and Our Failure to Meet Them

In retrospect, the question was probably rhetorical. A colleague asked me, “Why do we under-promise and then under-deliver?”  Despite my less-than-coherent answer, the question is worthy of some thought.

The question restated is, “Why do we set liberal timelines and then fail to deliver results?” The poignancy of the question should not be lost in its sarcasm.  First, why are we overly risk-averse when it comes to making commitments?   And secondly, given the fact that we under-committed, why do we STILL fail to deliver the results on time?  Logically, hedging on a timeline would give ample opportunity to deliver on time.  So, when both happen (over-estimating and failing to deliver), there exists a perfect storm of futility.  Why?

Now that I have had time to reflect, I may have better answers.

  1. Inexperience – If we do not know the amount of work involved in completing the individual tasks of a project, there is a 50-50 chance we will overshoot the project timing.  Solution:  Always identify tasks and estimate the workload as a team.  Team buy-in to the project’s deliverables creates a solid foundation from which to build the project plan.
  2. Pulling a fast one – Be honest-why would we put ourselves under the gun to commit to a timeline if we don’t have to?  In the absence of a hard deadline, we tend to give ourselves an excessive amount of time to accomplish the goal.  This lackadaisical attitude in committing to the project carries over into our ability to execute the project.  Lazy is as lazy does.   Solution:  If the project is important enough to take on, put together a solid timeline and execute the project.  If not, don’t bother.
  3. Poor performance – Sad but true.  Even the best timelines require a project manager who can keep the team on task, mitigate risks, and manage resources.  If the project owner will not own the project, the project will fail.  Successful projects have an accountability structure that expects projects be on time and on budget.  Who’s to blame if poor performance continues to exist?  {Insert definition of insanity here.} Solution: As the leader, hold yourself accountable to keep the project manager accountable.

As leaders and stakeholders, our businesses depend on getting results.  In order to escape the hamster wheel of ineffectiveness, we must determine the root cause and take action to correct.  Give your team the opportunity to succeed by committing to critical projects and delivering the results.