Thursday, July 9, 2009

Guest Post: Striving for Continuous Improvement & Innovation

Author: Narayanan Viswanathan

Management guru, Tom Peters, stated: 'Get innovative or get dead'. One couldn’t be just as candid & relevant, all the same. ‘Find out what works & do more of it’ & ‘don’t fix it if it isn’t broken’, have been the most standardized management techniques used by some of the business entities, who either no longer exist today or are on their way out of business. It used to be thought that Innovation was what took place within R&D centres, propelled by the geeks hired specifically for the purpose, but this isn't the case today. The need to break the collusion of mediocrity, enable constant revitalisation & consequently maximise stakeholder value have forced organizations to recognize that innovation is paramount to all within the organization. It is evident that innovation is the way forward & innovators need both motivators & enablers. Hence, business entities encourage innovation across functions in the organization, rather than just within the specialist R&D units.

Innovation however, cannot be entirely engineered towards a desired outcome. It is a perpetual journey towards excellence, which could involve a process of trial & error. Take for example, the drug discovery process which has an average success rate of 17.54%; which means, statistically 21 out of every 25 processes are scraped. Out of the remaining 4, 2 fail to meet consistency & undesired effect tests, & out of the remaining 2, only 1 takes the shape of a medicine that is commercially marketed.

Innovation need not essentially refer to creation of something unique or grandiose. Take for example, NASA spending millions of dollars in sub-contracting costs to invent a Pen, that can write on any surface & in zero-gravity, that can be used by its Astronauts in outer-space; the Soviet’s instead, used a 9H grade Pencil which left residue less enough to be considered safe for use in space-station.

Innovation is also about identifying & leveraging on existing techniques; being applied on hitherto untapped area. For example, McDonalds’ adopted assembly line production technique, a process that revolutionized auto industry, for preparing fast-food – they called it the Speedee System. It improved their efficiency, wiped out carhops that were ubiquitous in the industry at the time, & set new standard for success in fast-food industry.

Innovation can be in every sphere of work across the functions in an organization. Take for example, Dell Direct model that stipulated a unique way of buying & selling. It starts & ends with the customers; provides them with customized systems, services & support; & also, enables Dell to manage the entire supply-chain with limited idle inventory. It not only set Dell apart, it also revolutionised the focus on customer experience, as an important differentiator, while also reducing direct costs.

More products & services have been created in the last century alone than the entirety of time before! All signs & trends only signal the possibility that the rate of innovation will only head northwards. The problem for many organizations is that they are not culturally equipped to deal with such rates of change. The fall of Ashton Tate Corp. (of DBase fame), the decline of International Harvester Co., the death of Walkman & Kodak films, are trite examples for lack of sustained development & innovation resulting in down-fall, while the advent of Internet, ATM, e-commerce & wireless communication are prominent examples of path-breaking inventions that revolutionized our times.

It’s important for organizations to constantly improve performances against key business processes through a deliberate Plan-Do-Learn-Repeat mechanism. It has been said before, but it is true nonetheless that innovative solutions help save millions of dollars that can be invested back into the customer relationships & employee development initiatives, that will have a direct bearing on both sustenance & growth of the business entity.

About the Author:
Narayanan Viswanathan, is a certified Global Professional in Human Resource Management (GPHR) with over 10 years of progressively responsible hands-on experience in the entire gamut of HR functions; with functional specialization in Talent Management & Talent Engagement. Currently, he is part of a 6-member HR Centre of Excellence (COE) team, at Cognizant, which is the strategic wing of corporate human resources, that manages the cross-geographical implementation of Balance Score Card, Performance Management, Career Development and Career Progression initiatives. He is also a Six Sigma Green Belt certified professional.