Low-Tech, High Impact Innovation

Did you know that sometimes, a simple solution can be orders of magnitude more effective than an advanced, modern one?

The term for this is “appropriate technology” – and the concept of appropriate technology is particularly relevant when you want to innovate in a developing economy. But it can also provide a blueprint for innovation under any economic circumstances.

The World Bank, an assistance agency of the United Nations, provides funds to developing countries for projects that are not eligible for lending from institutions in other world markets. Although it was originally instituted to fund reconstruction projects after World War II, its projects to date include building power dams, improving sanitation, stimulating agricultural technology transfer (particularly for independent farmers), and stimulating technology transfer for all aspects of industrial technology in developing countries. Citing E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book as the source of the “appropriate technology” movement, World Bank research economists collected and gathered empirical evidence to test the notion that “intermediate” technologies adapted to local conditions that include lesser education and more widespread unemployment would be more effective in achieving local economic goals. (Weiss 2006)

They found that indeed, you could pick technologies to implement in under-developed countries that had excellent cost/benefit profiles – but those technologies would still not be adopted by the people (or they might adopt them, but the effect would be detrimental). Weiss traced the progress of four initiatives that considered this paradox using the principle of appropriate technology. The latest, greatest equipment to move earth and build villages faster looked like it had great innovative potential – on paper. But what really happened as a result of this study?

The researchers came up with some pretty enlightening examples of efficient appropriate technology in the field. For example, did you know that head baskets can be one of the most efficient solutions for moving earth over short distances on level ground? Did you know that donkeys provide a more effective solution for transporting materials short distances up steep slopes than heavy machines?

Adopting the perspective of “appropriate technology” is an excellent way to promote and increase innovation. Your solutions don’t have to be high tech, they just have to provide wide benefits – and taking this sometimes counterintuitive approach can be enlightening.

The concept of appropriate technology reflects both the ISO 8402 definition of quality, and the ISO 9241-11 definition of usability, each of which requires four elements: specified users (or people who benefit), specified goals, systems that are intended to meet those goals for those users, and a specified context of use. Too often we might neglect that final element, which really represents what we are trying to achieve when we consider the appropriateness of technology. If we strive to always take into account systems thinking, however, we should naturally account for many of these considerations as we accommodate a myriad of international and cultural differences.

Weiss, C. (2006). Science and technology at the World Bank, 1968-83. History and Technology, 22(1), March 2006, p. 81-104.

DMAIC Demystified

The DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) methodology is one of the cornerstones of a Six Sigma project. It provides a useful heuristic that can remind you how to structure your project when you apply Six Sigma. This is important for two reasons. First, by reminding you to DEFINE your project’s goals, its deliverables to external customers, its deliverables to internal customers, and most important – your definition of a defect – you establish the solid foundation for actually delivering process improvements that meet tangible goals. Second, DMAIC provides a common language for Six Sigma practitioners so that new teams can spend time solving problems instead of searching for their own standard operating procedures.

If you’re familiar with Deming’s PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle, DMAIC is essentially equivalent, but with a very important addition at the end:

  • Planning = Defining
  • Doing = Measuring
  • Checking = Analyzing
  • Acting = Improving
  • (Sustaining/Continually Learning) = Controlling

There’s nothing magical about DMAIC – it’s just a helpful reminder to guide you as you structure a Six Sigma project. And remember that a Six Sigma project is hopefully not the end of the improvement – ideally, a process team will leave behind a new foundation for identifying more efficiencies in the future.

How ISO 8402 (9000 para 3.1.5) Relates Quality to Innovation

The ISO 8402 standard (now 9000 para 3.1.5) defines quality as “the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.”

It is a static definition, fixed in time, and considers only those characteristics that meet stated and implied needs now. It addresses the needs of the customers (e.g. inclusion of certain features) as well as the stakeholders (e.g. financial, schedule and resource constraints). This definition attends to the specified needs that are embodied in requirements, specifications documents, and standards (including quality management systems), while acknowledging that an equally important body of needs might be unstated or implied. This suggests that the process of needs identification extends well beyond simply capturing and responding to the audible “voice of the customer”.

The word “totality” suggests that quality is more than just characteristics; it is also the design, implementation, and interaction of those characteristics with the individual, implying a much richer context for the practice of quality problem solving. Because utility is the ability to satisfy needs, this definition can even be abbreviated as “the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear on its utility.”

This definition easily accommodates the notion of innovation when the time dimension is added: innovation becomes the totality of characteristics needed to satisfy future utility.

(This fully aligns with the ASQ Innovation and Value Creation group’s 2012 description of innovation as quality for tomorrow.)

What is Quality?

What is quality? There are a myriad of ways to define quality, which is one reason why the study or pursuit of quality can feel so nebulous at times. For example, quality can be considered:

  • Zero defects (Crosby)
  • Conformance to requirements (Crosby)
  • Fitness for use (Juran)
  • Best for customer conditions (Feigenbaum)

Hunt (1992) provides an overview of the defintions of quality. This considers the definitions above a little more thematically:

  • Transcendent (you know it when you see it)
  • Product-based (defect-free, or presence of required/positive attributes)
  • User-based (customer defines needs)
  • Manufacturing-based (conformance)
  • Value-based (“best for customer conditions”)

Despite the range of definitions, the goals underlying the pursuit of quality and continuous improvement are the same: achieving conformity, reducing variation, eliminating waste and rework, eliminating non-value-adding activity, preventing human error, preventing defects, improving productivity, and increasing efficiency and effectiveness (Okes & Westcott, 2000).

Only one definition seems to capture all of the others, though. ISO 8402 defines quality as “the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear on its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.” An entity can be any technology – a product, a process, or a system. “Characteristics” covers both the attributes of that technology and the processes that produced it. “Stated and implied” needs acknowledges that customers will have needs, but other stakeholders can have needs too (you, your boss, your shareholders, your company). If “you know quality when you see it,” that means that something is meeting your stated and implied needs – your spoken and unspoken specifications. Even if you can’t define what you mean by quality, when quality is achieved, your implied needs will be met.

As much as the ISO 8402 definition of quality really appeals to me, there is still one framework for understanding quality that’s even more comprehensive and elegant! It’s Mitra’s Model.

Hunt, V.D. (1992) Quality in America: How to Implement a Competitive Quality Program. Mc-Graw Hill.

Okes, D. & Westcott, R. (2000). The Certified Quality Manager Handbook. Milwaukee: Quality Press.

Being Frugal vs. Being Lean

The October 20, 2008 issue of Business Week features an article on page 55 called “The New Age of Frugality”. The article, about “confronting the debt culture” in the U.S., describes a handful of real-life stories from people who recently overextended themselves, and were forced to learn some hard lessons about finding the natural limits of their spending capabilities.

As individuals and families find it necessary to become more frugal, it is reasonable to think that companies might also `find themselves in this situation. But what does it really mean to be frugal? According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, “frugal” means:
1. economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful: a frugal manager.
2. entailing little expense; requiring few resources; meager; scanty: a frugal meal.

So to be frugal, you must be economical; you must be cautious with your expenditures, save for a rainy day, try to get the most out of limited resources, and don’t waste. This last part reminded me of the lean philosophy – but does lean also embrace judicious investing?

What is lean? The five principles of lean, from Womack & Jones (1996), are understanding value, understanding your value streams (that is, how the value is generated), embracing the concept of flow, employing “pull” within processes, and committing to continuous improvement. By understanding value generation, we can refine a process so that every action is productive. By employing pull, we ensure that we use resources only when they are needed, and thus don’t waste. By committing to continuously improve, we agree to consciously approach each element of the process, and reflect on value and flow often to find new opportunities to improve. In other words, once we’re done improving a process, we don’t stop thinking about it and learning from it. And in learning from it, we can make it even better.

How can you confront your own attitude towards debt and spending using lean principles?

  • Understand what purchases or investments will REALLY help you add value
  • Understand how that value is generated (by you or your financial institution)
  • “Pull” from your checking accounts, savings accounts and investments just-in-time, and only when it directly contributes to adding more value
  • Commit to reflecting on your expenditures regularly, and evaluate how much value you have been able to create from what you’ve spent

These principles can also be applied in your work environment. Value is sometimes reflected in metrics like Return on Investment (ROI), but not always. For example, are you creating value in the form of goodwill? This counts. Lean principles can help you be more frugal, but being frugal will not make you lean – spending less does not necessarily mean that you are generating value more effectively.

Womack, J. & Jones, D.T. (1996). Lean thinking. New York: Simon & Schuster.

When Lean and Six Sigma Don’t Work

Someone on LinkedIn recently asked the question “Are there examples of processes where the concept of Lean, the philosophy of Six Sigma, or other quality tools don’t work?

Fortunately, there have been plenty of researchers who have asked this question already, and one in particular that I want to summarize. With that said, a persistent in theme in the management and quality management academic literature over the past several years has been to study the conditions under which quality management practices “work”. To me, “working” means that the return on investment (ROI) has been worthwhile – doing the project yielded more benefits than not doing the project. For all of the bottom-line success stories from TQM implementations particularly in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and Six Sigma from the 1990’s until present, there are a substantial number of “failed projects” that didn’t deliver on their promises.

My favorite overview was written by Benner & Tushman (2003) in the Academy of Management Review. By reviewing the conclusions from tens of other academic articles, they found that “in stable, technologically certain settings these practices may be productive, [but] in uncertain or technically complex contexts these practices may be quite counterproductive.” That is, the more rapidly the competitive environment is changing, the more risk is associated with deriving benefits from a quality management/process improvement initiative.

  • Slowly changing competitive environment = Better success with quality initiatives
  • Rapidly changing competitive environment = Less success with quality initiatives

Granted, this isn’t a complete conclusion, because the skill and style of the process improvement team can impact its potential for success. But it does provide support for the notion that a company should consider the competitive environment as it sets its own expectations for what a process management initiative can deliver.

Benner, M.J. & Tushman, M.L. (2003). Exploitation, exploration, and process management: the productivity dilemma revisited. Academy of Management Review, 28(2), 238-256.

Technology, Competitiveness and the 2008 Election

Competitiveness is the “capacity of people, organizations and nations to achieve superior outputs and especially outcomes, and in particular, to add value, while using the same or lower amounts of inputs.” (Caryannis & Gonzalez, 2003) Basically, how can you make the best of the resources you have – and produce high quality stuff while you’re at it? On the national scale, competitiveness is often assessed by how well the organizations, institutions, infrastructure and economic policies of a country (inputs) can be leveraged by people to enhance the collective quality of life (outputs). Adding value to peoples’ lives by enhancing the quality of life is the goal!

These inputs are all technologies – elements that contribute to social groups providing themselves with the material objects of their civilizations. When changes in any of them either improve or inhibit the performance of people, companies or countries, those technological outcomes also influence competitiveness. Reducing waste, improving reliability, creating new products and defining new, needed services all contribute to increasing competitiveness. However, we shouldn’t forget that improving institutions like schools and healthcare systems, improving infrastructure for transportation and communications, and sharpening the economic policy so that it supports sustainable progress are also important.

How do the candidates’ proposed innovation policies stack up against one another? Here are a few of the best resources I’ve found to help explain the differences to me:

Caryannis, C. & Gonzalez, M. (2003). Creativity and innovation = competitiveness? When, how and why. In L.V. Shavivina (Ed.), The International Handbook on Innovation. Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 170-179.

Ezell, S.J. & Atkinson, R.D.(2008). Comparing the candidates’ technology and innovation policies. Report of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). Available online.

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