How to Include Your Manufacturing Team in Innovation

A few weeks back, I asked you for your Innovation Questions. Innovation Questions. Thanks to everyone who contributed a question, and please continue to do so. The goal with my responses will be to suggest a tool, process or principle that could help you build a systemic solution.Below is a question from Greg Allen about getting more people involved in his innovation initiative and a response from a non-Guru.

innovation and the worker

"How do I get my manufacturing team more involved? The office folks are starting to make the transition, but the team who is out on the floor getting their hands dirty building our products do not seem to understand that their insight and input is gold for our innovation process." - Greg Allen

Hello Greg, thanks for asking this question. I can tell you are already heading in the right direction by seeking information on how to include your manufacturing team and leverage their invaluable insight.

I am reminded of a favorite phrase of Innovation Engineering practitioners, one that Deming is famous for repeating over and over again, "How could they know?"

How Could They Know

"How could they?"

IÕm not sure how involved your manufacturing team has been so far in your initiative, but one explanation for why they might not know the value they can add is because theyÕve never been taught.

Well, and fear. But fear will start to vaporize when we address education.

Educate and Then Activate.

The most straightforward advice I have is to give these folks some education about innovation, what it means and how you handle it at your company. Then apply their energy immediately towards something that is important to the organization, be it problem solving on existing projects, improving processes, or generating new ideas.

Education without activation will frustrate your team because they will have learned new skills with no outlet to use them. 

Activation without education will frustrate your team because they will have been asked to contribute and they wonÕt know how.

How to Channel Their Energy

Let me zoom out and consider some bigger picture challenges that might have prevented or delayed your plans to include employees past the office staff.

When an organization first starts to do innovation, the leadership will typically recruit a small group of people who volunteer to be involved in the initial effort. We call this a first wave. The small team will work to generate ideas for a specific strategic aim.

From there, the intention is always to broaden the effort and engagement every quarter, educating new folks and kicking off new projects.

However, IÕve seen organizations stall this progression because the innovation projects from the first few waves generate new work and its all the company can handle just get the projects through the development pipeline.

Too many innovation projects is a great problem to have, but a problem none the less. And so to prevent educating people without activating them, innovation capability on-boarding stops.

So, two possible solutions to keep expanding your reach without adding new projects. 

1. Channel Energy towards Existing Projects: When a project goes from the initial vetting phase into Development and Delivery, more of the companyÕs resources are devoted to it. That means that many more people will be involved in bringing the project to life.

Typically at this point in the process, the main components of the project have been validated and decided upon such as; who is the customer, what are we promising, and how are we going to make or save money. However, there are thousands of decisions left to be made. If you train folks from manufacturing, procurement, shipping and customer service on the basic principles of innovation, they will be enabled to help project leaders overcome obstacles and avoid compromising the WOW factor of the project as it goes through Development and into Delivery.

There is a real need for creative thinking all the way through this process which means every department can use the innovatorÕs mindset and tool set. 

2. Channel Energy towards Everyday Improvements: Big projects are important for the companyÕs growth trajectory, but a healthy innovation portfolio includes the small stuff too. Every single employee will not be leading an enormous new product development effort, but every single employee can contribute and think creatively about how to make the company better.

For your manufacturing team, that might mean spending a few minutes during daily or weekly meetings openly talking about ideas and opportunities with their supervisor.In order to make that time effective, employee should know or be able to find out...

    • What types of ideas is the company open to, strategically speaking?
    • How and when can I express my ideas?
    • How and when can I test my ideas?
    • What types of ideas can I implement on my own without additional approval? 
    • If I canÕt implement on my own, how can I make a case for the company to invest in my idea?

Greg, I hope this response gives you some possibilities to consider for both educating and activating your manufacturing team.