What is Innovation? Towards a Universal Definition

In 2013 the ASQ Innovation Think Tank defined innovation as "Quality for Tomorrow"

In 2013 the ASQ Innovation Think Tank defined innovation as “Quality for Tomorrow”

What is innovation? It’s become such an overused management buzzword over the past couple decades that, when I told my very esteemed executive woman friend that I was planning to write a book on innovation, she groaned. “Don’t do that,” she said. “Everybody does that.”

Just today, Fast Company published an article asserting that we really need a commonly accepted definition for innovation to “weed out the truly innovative from the rest”. Its author, Stephen Uban, goes on to explain that the solution to this dilemma is the (apparently new) Innovation Standard that has been developed by the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA).

Is innovation a new product line? Does it represent an improved process for efficiency? Is it a great idea?

The answer, simply, is yes.

Stephen Uban in Fast Company, 8/1/2014

I went to the PDMA web site and found that you can purchase this standard, along with all the models necessary to build your “innovation management system”, for $749. I’m not a fan of high-priced “standards” in general, especially when they don’t have an established track record, but many of the elements are extremely well captured by traditional quality management systems (e.g. reducing waste, understanding current capabilities, improving against benchmarks).

We’ve been through this before.

I agree with Uban’s quote, above, but I also strongly believe that we can all get on the same page regarding what innovation is all about without obfuscating things further.

In 2008, I proposed that we should just extend the ISO 9000 (3.1.5) definition of quality to define innovation as the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bear upon its ability to satisfy future stated and implied needs.”

This is perfectly aligned with the 2013 report from the ASQ Innovation Think Tank that establishes innovation as “quality for tomorrow”, and also with Max McKeown‘s definition of innovation as “a new idea made useful (by whatever means)” — which includes the creative practice of combining and recombining ideas and information to yield new value.

Quality as a Cultural Vision: My Week in Japan

japan-treesIn his July post, ASQ CEO Bill Troy reflects on the immense value of an ultra-clear organizational vision. After a trip to Sweden, where he attended a quality conference organized by the European Organization for Quality (EOQ), he was struck by IKEA’s starkly elegant focus on its customers’ needs, and Volvo’s BHAGgy(*) goal that no one will be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo by 2020.

This past June, I went to Japan for the first time. It wasn’t a work trip, so I didn’t visit any companies or do any plant tours. I didn’t intend to learn anything about quality, despite the obvious opportunities. And quite frankly, I wasn’t really sure I would enjoy Japan, or feel comfortable in that country, despite my profession’s obvious ties to that country’s insights and contributions to knowledge!

Why? Well, two reasons. The first is that I have some deep-seated emotional issues associated with Japan. It’s kind of like that time I was 16 and decided to experiment with too much vodka and Great Bluedini Kool-Aid. It was not a good idea. And I’ve never been able to eat or drink anything blue (or even drink Kool-Aid) since — that’s over 20 years completely inoculated to Kool-Aid, all because of a negative emotional association. I kind of had the same thing with Japan, prior to this summer.

My second reason for resisting Japan is more legitimate. I’ve worked with Japanese colleagues in the past, and it’s always been subtly disturbing. I always got the distinct sense of a lack of authenticity, and authenticity has always been a really important value of mine. I found that my Japanese colleagues could be very nice to my face, but then later, I’d realize that they completely disagreed with me (or in fact, disliked me completely). I didn’t like the (real or perceived) dichotomy. It made me nervous. If I can’t know you authentically, how can I work with you?

After spending a week in Japan, I’m not so bothered by this “lack of authenticity”. Even acknowledging this shift in my feelings is very surprising to me.

Being in Japan is an amazing, refreshing experience. Each person clearly has a sense of duty. Everyone I encountered was very respectful, genuinely interested in not bothering other people, and genuinely interested in providing a high level of service quality. There was no question about it: if you were in a service role, you were going to provide high quality. If you were responsible for providing products: they were going to be of high quality, regardless of how much you had paid for the privilege.

It would be shameful if you did not provide high quality.

This just seems to be part of their culture. I’m not advocating the threat of shame, or the threat of being ostracized by your community if you don’t meet their expectations — but there’s something very nice about having a socially-enforced baseline of high expectations. This  cultural vision, socialized into everyone since childhood, ensures that the entire country routinely meets high standards for quality just because how could it be any other way?

In fact, the cultural vision related to quality in Japan is so clear, I’m sure no one can even see it.

 

(*)BHAG = “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” or alternatively, a really crazy-out-there stretch goal, conceptualized and popularized by Collins and Porras (1994).

Continuous Permanent Improvement

arun-cpiWhat? A book on continuous improvement that would make executives and other managers happy?

Yes, Arun Hariharan has made this happen in Continuous Permanent Improvement, published by the ASQ Quality Press in May 2014. Although there are many references that describe the mindset and philosophy of quality and continuous improvement efforts, it is rare to see one that could meet the needs (and satisfy the interests) of executives as well as operations managers. This book, which reflects on his experiences working with organizations of all sizes over the past three decades, provides a refreshing perspective, aiming to “give you a holistic and strategic approach to quality, rather than the limited view that restricts the benefits to only certain operational or tactical aspects.” These well-written and engaging 236 pages easily meets this primary goal. As part of an interview with Arun on the ASQ blog, Julia McIntosh calls thisa strategic distillation of experiences, anecdotes, stories, case studies, and lessons learned from successes and mistakes in nearly three decades of experience.”

There are several highlights that will also help readers bridge the strategic and operational levels.  For example, in Chapter 4, the author differentiates between SIPOC (Suppliers – Inputs – Processes – Outputs – Customers) and the “outside-in” COPIS (Customers – Outputs – Processes – Inputs – Suppliers) approach to understanding a process first from the customer’s perspective. He adds that COPIS can be used strategically as well as operationally, and provides a comprehensive case study of how strategic COPIS was applied at one organization. Chapter 5 presents the rationale for standardized processes in the context of an expanding bakery, a story that provides an excellent backdrop for explaining the relationship between standards and innovation. In Chapter 8, the author demonstrates a very straightforward method for value stream mapping, by simply identifying which stages of a process can be considered types of waste. Chapter 9 provides the most comprehensive explanation of “First Time Right” that I have seen in print.

This book is not a manual or reference guide that covers specific techniques for improvement and how to implement them. More significantly, it uses stories to illustrate how the many dimensions of quality and business excellence can be effectively integrated in practice. By taking this approach, the author has provided an excellent resource for practitioners who are looking for new insights, as well as academics who are seeking a more nuanced understanding of how continuous improvement is organized and managed in practice. It would also make an excellent textbook for an advanced undergraduate or graduate course in practical process improvement.

This is draft material for a review that will be published in the October 2014 issue of Quality Management Journal.

Baldrige as a Micro-Framework for Organizational Planning

7737-thumbnailIn his June post, ASQ CEO Bill Troy shares the news that ASQ has recently been awarded the Excellence level of achievement in 2014 for the Wisconsin Forward Award, which is the state’s quality program that reflects the values of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA). He asks what experiences others have had with using quality award programs as frameworks for reflection and continuous improvement.

I had a great experience in 2006 using the Baldrige Criteria to develop a Workforce Management Plan for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). We were tasked by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to prepare this report, which was definitely going to require us to dig deep and reflect on how we were managing our workforce, both at the operational level and in service of our strategic priorities. Unfortunately, none of us had ever done this before, so we were pretty much clueless as to what elements such a report would require, and what sorts of questions we might have to answer to ensure that we were approaching the question of workforce management strategically. The NSF wasn’t really able to provide guidance to us other than “you should use best practices from business and industry.” Fortunately, because I had been involved in the quality community for several years, I knew that the Baldrige Criteria might help us accomplish our goal. And it did!

In addition to using the questions in Section 5, Workforce Focus, we also integrated some of the elements of the “P” section of the Criteria to develop our plan. This helped us construct the initial draft in an intense week, rather than the weeks or months it might have taken if we didn’t have the Criteria to guide us. We captured our experience in a paper that was published to an Observatory Operations conference proceedings book in 2006, which you can read here for additional background if you need to construct a Workforce Management Plan. We also included the outline for our report (even though the content itself was confidential). The main point is that you don’t need to use or implement all sections of the Baldrige Criteria for it to yield immediate tangible value for your organization… consider applying the sections when you need them in your continuous improvement journey. I hope you find it useful!

Quality in Education Part 3: Drive Out Fear. Teach Quality Standards.

 

Image Credit: Lucy Glover Photography (http://lucyglover.com/)

Image Credit: Lucy Glover Photography (http://lucyglover.com/)

[This is the third article in a three-part series responding to ASQ's May question in "View from the Q". It follows Quality in Education Part 1: The Customer Service Mentality is Flawed and Quality in Education Part 2: There is Power in Variation.]

What can we do to break out of the “manufacturing system mentality” of education? It’s not like this dilemma is unrecognized… just today, Time published an article with the tagline “Today’s education is training yesterday’s students.” Because of the severe downshift in the economy, the authors argue, the real value is in teaching students how to be entrepreneurial — to identify new opportunities (in every field, really) and be empowered to move forward and realize them.

So how do we teach students to be entrepreneurial now… without waiting for the system to change and broadly support it? I’m sure there are many ideas, but in addition to the Burning Mind Project, here are two things that I aim to build into all of my courses – supporting the shift to new modalities of education, while still supporting the institution within which I am embedded.

#3.1: Drive out fear. In addition to being one of Deming’s famed 14 Points, this (to me) is also the key to innovation. Everyone must be given permission to explore, to attempt, to fail, to wildly succeed. It seems almost like a cliche, but we have been cultured into a world dominated by fear, and so the landscape of fear is so endemic it is nearly invisible. We, like our students, tend to behave like free range chickens… and we have to shift that dynamic so that our gifts and talents can emerge and be used to benefit society.

#3.2: Teach students to identify and pursue high standards for quality. What does it mean to be excellent? Who decides what is excellent? What should you be able to do if you want to be recognized as excellent? These are questions students should be able to answer for themselves… and we need to help them figure out how to do it. For example, when you write your Master’s thesis or work on a dissertation, there’s no such thing as “getting a passing grade”. You basically commit to work, and work, and work… until you “get it” and everyone on your committee is happy… but then there are always a few more things that need to be improved before you’re totally done and can graduate.

Here are some brief examples of people and organizations that are working to redefine the meaning of education. Each of them, in my opinion, seeks to drive out fear AND help students critically examine, and then work to meet, quality standards.:

  • Mycelium: This North-Carolina based school recognizes that not everyone has four (or more) years to dedicate to a traditional university experience. Their program is structured in terms of 12-week learning journeys, where a “living laboratory” is created between thought leaders, mentors, and students.
  • The Minerva Project: This school aims to reinvent the university experience from the ground up, by focusing on the habits of mind and leadership competencies that can help students (of ANY age!) be successful in any field. It’s still a four year experience: the first year is in San Francisco, the second in either Berlin or Buenos Aires, the third in Hong Kong or Mumbai, and the final year in London or New York.
  • The BIF Student Experience Lab‘s “Students Design for Education” (SD4E) project: What if 24 students got together and designed what they feel would be the perfect school? BIF is going to find out soon.
  • SF Brightworks: This San Francisco-based primary school provides a theme-based and open-ended educational experience that encourages young students to explore, collaborate, and solve practical problems. Instead of assuming that everyone must learn exactly the same thing, Brightworks focuses more on what groups can create by combining their knowledge and experience… an analog of what happens in the real world, after traditional schooling is “complete”.

And our discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Nikhil Goyal, who has bravely become the outspoken voice of the oppressed masses populating primary and secondary schools all over the U.S. Although he has recently graduated from Syosset High School, there’s no doubt that he’ll continue to catalyze driving out fear — both for students, and for the institutions that fear change.

What are YOUR ideas? What can individuals and small groups do to transform the quality of education?

Quality in Education Part 2: There is Power in Variation

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

[This is the second part in a three-part series that starts with Quality in Education Part 1: The Customer Service Mentality is Flawed]

Reducing variation is a theme in quality management. It’s also traditionally been a theme in education: students are required to adhere to standards for competency and pass exams to demonstrate those competencies: then we let them out. But the factory model of education is outdated, because the problems we are confronted with today are far too complex to be satisfied by uniform proficiency in the same basic skill sets. That’s why honoring and leveraging variation is, in my opinion, where the greatest strength can be derived in educational environments right now.

But you might say… hold on! If I go to school to get a degree in civil engineering so I can build bridges, a measure of the quality of my education is that I actually can build those bridges. I’d say no, you’re not going to be able to build bridges until you work alongside other people who already know how to build bridges, and you let yourself be infused by that tacit knowledge as well. The purpose of acquiring explicit knowledge through schooling is to be able to have the productive, effective conversations with experts that are essential for successful, hands-on problem solving in the real world. Education and credentialing are two different things.

The issue has been discussed already within the quality community, at least a little bit. Vol. 2 Issue 1 of ASQ’s Quality Approaches in Higher Education journal starts out with a guest commentary by John Dew, a senior administrator from Troy University in Alabama:

“It is time for administrators in education to stop making the same mistakes that managers in industry were making before they discovered the meaning of quality… The current educational system is designed to ignore variation, and indeed to amplify the negative effects of variation, so that a significant number of students cannot possibly succeed in the system.”

Dew goes on to express that variation in our inputs is one of the things we seek to minimize and/or control in quality management. However, we can’t (and wouldn’t really WANT to) do this in education! People come into programs with all sorts of different educational levels, backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and histories. In fact, we kind of LIKE variation in our inputs… we have programs and initiatives to make sure we get some!

It’s called DIVERSITY — and it helps us solve problems using a wealth of knowledge (both explicit and tacit) and a tapestry of insight!

At the same time, we want to make sure that students are prepared for their intended career paths. As a result, we seek to control variation in our outputs or learning outcomes. Students should achieve and demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in their coursework, and we often give them grades to serve as an indicator of that proficiency. But are these outputs really meaningful? It is my belief that the effectiveness of an education can only be assessed years later, after the student has had the opportunity to learn and grow into greater maturity, and apply their new skills and knowledge to meaningful pursuits. We need to provide students with the opportunity to leverage the variation that they bring, individually, to the learning environment… and then help them preferentially focus on developing their talents and passions. But that approach is completely anathema to reducing variation in our outputs in a school environment.

A high quality education is like adopting a new lifestyle with healthier habits… only the habits are not physical, but intellectual and critical. Our new habits of mind help us integrate new information while effectively sorting through misinformation and disinformation, and approach puzzles with a greater resourcefulness so our ability to contribute to solutions is strengthened.

John Dew acknowledges that the current educational model is fundamentally flawed, but the clear solutions are out of reach: “we can’t afford to provide individual instruction to every student [or make the batches smaller]… we are, therefore, locked into the batch process for education.” It’s not cost effective or profitable. We can’t do it.

So for now, we’re consigned to small, incremental “improvements” to honor, rather than condemn, variation. I’ll share how I try to do that tomorrow, as I describe Ingredient #3.

Quality in Education Part 1: The Customer Service Mentality is Flawed

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

May’s ASQ “View from the Q” post by Julia McIntosh explores the link between quality and education, a theme that emerged in discussions at this May’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement (WCQI) in Dallas. As a college professor, this is a subject I think about all the time.

Here’s the issue: higher quality in education should yield a stronger, more capable workforce. But there are some disconnects here in practice. As Julia remarks, “students in the U.S. are praised for poor performance or for ‘just showing up’… as a result, they expect to be celebrated for mediocrity, rather than for quality.” This doesn’t bode well for effectively constructing a long-term pipeline of new talent.

From the quality perspective, what can we do to improve education? I’ll address this from the perspective of post-secondary higher education, those critical (usually four) years between graduating from high school and landing that all-important entry-level job. My recipe has three ingredients, explored in this three-part post. First, we need to shift our collective consciousness.

#1 Higher education is NOT a service industry. But it’s become big business, so it’s natural that administrators have picked up on the jargon of corporations. I read articles all the time that talk about how students are customers, attending classes where they are provided good customer service by their professors and the universities. According to this analogy, the degree is the product that the student can hold for perpetuity… a token of supposed capabilities that can be exchanged for jobs and money… an “investment in their future earnings potential.”

In March, the Chronicle of Higher Education provided a great explanation of why this position is fundamentally flawed:

Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.

Customer service implies participating in a system of transaction or exchange in which one side provides a service to another. While plenty of money changes hands, universities don’t really sell a product, not in the sense that “customer service” implies, anyway. At most, I think we might argue that students are purchasing a well-structured opportunity to learn or obtain (we hope) meaningful credentials. The “well-structured” point is critical. When I hear students explicitly define themselves as customers, it’s often in the context of perceived bad teaching, a sense that the structure surrounding the learning opportunity is somehow deficient.

It’s not just that students want simply to buy a degree. Students place reasonable desires—faster grading, fewer lectures, more lectures, more preparation, clearer grading standards, etc.—into the framework of commerce. It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management.

- See more at: http://m.chronicle.com/article/Faculty-Members-Are-Not/145363/#sthash.ZgvMp94X.D6wokNur.dpuf

To me, the notion of “student as customer” in the traditional sense is absurd, because education is about a co-creative experience. Education is about exercising your critical and analytical thinking skills, learning about yourself and what you’re good at (and what you enjoy), and learning how to relate to others. It’s about gradually, and through practice, becoming better at all of the above. It’s about discovering new meaning in yourself and in the world. It is as much a product of the people around you, getting educated at the same time, as it is the subject matter you’re exploring. It’s a transformation that happens within you — and is not a service that can be provided FOR you or TO you. You’re in charge of how well that education will “work” — if at all.

It’s kind of like trying to recast the church in the language of corporate jargon. Is your priest or minister your service provider? What is customer satisfaction if you attend church? Do you really have a right to demand it? If you don’t agree with everything your religious advisor says, or how they say it, do you have a right to complain (because they’re not meeting your needs)? Of course church is different than college… spiritual advisors don’t try to grade you, nor do they hold that all-important “degree” for you to advance to the next level. To be able to move forward in life with a solid spiritual foundation. You can achieve salvation, you know, but only if you get at least a 2.5 GPA and don’t fail any of your primary doctrine courses or commit sins that are too big.

You get in what you put out. If you sign up for a gym and never exercise, or go there and don’t use the equipment, are you going to be dissatisfied as a customer? Probably not, because you know that you have a critical role to play in how well the gym works for you. You are paying a certain number of dollars a month for the privilege of being able to use the facilities, and benefit from the resources (physical and intellectual) provided by the environment.

Ironically, if we regularly used a framework like SERVQUAL to assess the quality of higher education, we’d be focusing on more of the right things: competence, courtesy, credibility, security, access, communication, knowing the customer/beneficiary, physical evidence of service, reliability, responsiveness. This does not reduce the concept of customer satisfaction to just how happy the consumer is upon delivery of the service, but integrates the nature of service delivery and the critical role of the customer in co-creating the experience of satisfaction.

The current educational model makes achieving high quality in terms dimension like SERVQUAL’s difficult, if not impossible: using this as a framework, a student who discovers they really shouldn’t be in college (but should be working in a bakery or a hair salon instead, to achieve their personal goals) would be evidence of a high quality educational environment. Abandoning pursuit of a degree to pursue interests or a lifestyle that’s ultimately more satisfying to an individual… well, I don’t know of many colleges (or students!) who would consider that indicative of a high quality education.

What is the Second Ingredient?