Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Innovation and Design: The Prefix and the Suffix

I'm trying to recall the case study we used in my MBA program.  This particular case study looked at the differences between an American car company and a Japanese car company in regards to quality.  As I recall, the Japanese workers had responsibility for quality throughout the production line, and could stop the line at any time if they found a significant defect.  Each person was responsible for the overall quality of the vehicle.  In the American car company, the production line ran, and at the end of the line there was a station called "quality" which inspected the cars and pulled them off the line if, in the inspectors judgement, the cars didn't pass a certain quality threshold.  In this instance "quality" was the responsibility of someone down the line, who could only accept or reject a finished product.  Unfortunately, many cars were being pulled out for quality reasons.  The object lesson there was that quality can be "tacked on" at the end of a production line.  To create high quality products, quality must be a part of the process from the beginning.  So firms introduced Quality Function Deployment, embraced Six Sigma, re-engineered their processes and now quality is embedded in all of the major functions of producing any product.

Why the obvious history lesson?  I look back at the lessons we learned about quality to make a corresponding point about two other very critical capabilities that aren't embedded but are simply tacked on:  innovation and design.  These two capabilities are, in many ways, in the same shape and offer the same promise as quality did as described in the previous paragraph.  Yet far too many firms are content to make innovation a prefix and design a suffix to the development of new products and services.

I titled this the Prefix and the Suffix because increasingly it seems that most firms believe that innovation is a "prefix" to the real work of product creation.  If only the "front end" worked better, then we'd create more interesting and valuable products and services.  To an extent that is probably true, but this thinking isolates innovation as if it were 1) black magic 2) an occasional effort 3) isolated to a small team and 4) very different from what the rest of the organization does.  While improving the "front end" may be a noble goal, embedding the importance of innovation throughout many functions and processes within a business is the ultimate goal.  After all, innovation in business models, services and customer experiences are just as important as product innovation.  By treating innovation as an isolated prefix to the rest of the important work, we miss its true value proposition and belittle its capabilities. 

I called design the "Suffix" because it is another very important capability that many firms isolate and seek to "tack on" at the end of the process.  Design isn't necessarily an interesting color or inventive packaging that can be slapped on as an afterthought.  Well-designed products attract attention in the marketplace and price premiums, but to achieve those benefits you have to embed (there's that word again) design thinking in the entire process.  Currently, we have Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) and I'm sure there's a Design for Lean (DFL), but where's the Design for Design?  Can't we develop an appreciation for the importance of design and build it into everything we do?  Again, design, like innovation, is not simply about products.  A firm can design its interactions with customers, its organizational structure, its processes.  Too often design is left in the "product" ghetto, isolated and simply tacked on at the end.

In my mind's eye I can see these virtual production facilities, where innovation dust is sprinkled on a robust manufacturing process, and eager designers await to apply the finishing polish at the end the process to boring, mundane products and services.  It doesn't work that way, and we have a clear example in quality to demonstrate that. 

Gandhi had a saying that I have on my wall - First they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.  In learning new skills, businesses have a three step learning process.  First we ignore it, then we tack it on, then we embrace it fully.  Innovation and Design are currently the prefix and the suffix of business - getting tacked on to the beginning and the end.  In the near future, it will be vital that they are embraced and embedded.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:42 AM


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