The Intersection of Rapid Innovation & Continuous Improvement

This past week I attended a presentation and panel discussion on Design Thinking as a tool for driving Rapid Innovation. It was held at the RXBAR HQ’s here in Chicago’s Loop, and had a great moderator and an all-star panel of some founders/execs from successful, innovative companies that have moved well beyond the start-up phase.

Design Thinking is a multi-step process: Define with Empathy, Ideate, Prototype, Test.

Define with Empathy encourages members of the team to get in the field with customers-to “walk in their shoes” in order to understand their wants and needs.

Ideate was like a brainstorming session with the team: spitball a bunch of ideas and start ranking and grouping, paring down to the critical few concepts to try—basically building a plan for action.

Prototype — inexpensively and quickly build out some samples with cardboard, tape, markers, anything laying around. I’m not a very creative sort so this felt a bit foreign to me personally, but this also seemed like a call to action—just get out there and try out your best ideas from the brainstorming session.

And then the test phase—get as much quick and factual feedback from customers about how your prototypes performed, looked, felt, etc.

The presenter kept emphasizing that this needed to be quick, didn’t need to be perfect, and shouldn’t cost much at all in the way of capital.

As the presentation unfolded, I was actually struck by a strange sense of familiarity. I couldn’t really put my finger on it.  Seemed kind of cutting edge—maybe just a bit out there— but I knew this language and these concepts. Then it hit me—this sounds just like the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust) cycle that is such an essential building block of any LeanSigma/Continuous Improvement culture. And seemingly to hammer the point home—as I turned away from the presenter to gather my thoughts—there in an adjacent conference room on the wall near a whiteboard was the classic symbol of the circle cut in quarters with PDCA in each slice. Perfect!

I’ll come back to Rapid Innovation and its essential role in top-side growth for an upcoming article—but today I want to stay with the fundamental “aha” of PDCA.

PDCA, especially when simplified and ingrained into the daily routine or “standard work” of everyone throughout an organization, is an exceptionally powerful improvement tool. It is also a great way to integrate quick pro-active problem solving, risk taking, failure acceptance, and non-capital project thinking into the full company. Plan, Do, Check, Adjust. Very much like the process described in Design Thinking above.

When a problem, issue, or improvement opportunity develops, get a few team members together—preferably out at the “Gemba” (the actual machine floor or work cell or shop floor or where the customer is using the product). The people who know the process, machine, etc., quickly brainstorm a few critical ideas, formulate a plan, and describe an expected outcome. Then they immediately try out their top idea—they just do it.  The team quickly checks or tests their results against the expected outcome and based on this analysis makes the proper adjustments and starts the process over again. If the problem or opportunity overwhelms the team or if they decide they don’t have the resources to fix the problem, then they request some help from supervisors, engineering, management, etc.

If supervision and upper management support this kind of thinking and initiative, recognizing and rewarding this behavior (both when problems are immediately solved or when they are surfaced and determined to be beyond the resources/capabilities of the team to fix), then teams far down the organization will use PDCA more often to assist in problem solving and improvement initiatives. It won’t be as necessary to call in supervisors and management every time there is an issue.  It won’t go perfectly each and every time, but with greater use this improvement muscle will grow and become more of a “fast-twitch” rapid response tool.

One of my favorite visual representations is to think of PDCA as a “flywheel” for improvement. As the organization starts to put the PDCA cycle into play, as it starts to spin faster and more often, it becomes your flywheel for greater and more rapid improvements. These seemingly small steps start a process in motion and creates its own forward/upward momentum.

And now your employee teammates will feel more connected to improvements in the company and more engaged with the process. Failures or process hiccups or mistakes will now be less intimidating or embarrassing as there is a known, accepted, and “user-friendly” method to attack issues. And everyone’s sense of speed and urgency will be heightened and more “normalized” and not just switches to flip only in an emergency.

I’m still amazed and pleasantly surprised to have found a reminder about one of my favorite improvement tools at an event for Rapid Innovation and Design Thinking. But great ideas are great ideas, no matter how they are packaged or targeted. And for me and all of us…yet another simple reminder to invest in your people and give them simple improvement and problem-solving tools.  Train the organization to utilize PDCA as part of their daily routine and start turning the improvement “flywheel” today.  You get happier, more relaxed, safe, and engaged employees, who drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

This article was originally published on September 4, 2018 on LinkedIn.

Image excerpted from Getting The Right Things Done, by Pascal Dennis.

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