Telling people to ‘innovate’ is easy. Creating the culture in which they really believe they have the licence to ‘think outside the box’ is a different thing altogether. It’s easier in classroom or workshop mode of course, because anybody can feel comfortable in that environment – people are happy to indulge in the genuine activity of brainstorming (a much misused term – intended to mean throwing really wild ideas into the ring but often used as simply listing the standard approaches to a particular problem).

So how do we get people who are really defining the future to throw aside the current constraints and look for solutions that completely cut across today’s rules? It isn’t easy. Stephen Shapiro’s excellent blueprint on the subject offers a series of steps that can act as a framework.

These steps are the ‘7 Rs’ of Innovation:


    The first step in any improvement activity has to be asking ourselves not how we can improve the present way of working, but how we would operate if we were starting from scratch – what is commonly termed the ‘clean sheet of paper’ approach.


    Changing the way in which activities are carried out, or even eliminating some activities, can have significant benefits in terms of business performance. If we can remove an activity because it is adding no value, or change the process so that the activity is no longer adding value, we can make life far more simple.

    A classic example here may be seen as an element of ‘vendor partnership’ or improved Supply Chain management but it also conforms to the definition of reconfiguring. Major suppliers to large retailers used to work to forecasts put together by their customers, based around replenishing intermediate warehouses within the customer organisation. Through the 1990s this moved towards the suppliers being given Point of Sale information and putting together their own forecasts. This not only eliminated an activity within the customer processes, but also improved plan integrity through reducing the re-order noise (Forrester or ‘Bullwhip’ Effect). 


    Carrying out tasks in a different order can contribute to improvements. For example, making garments from dyed cloth requires significant levels of work in progress if the garments are supplied in many colours. If all product were to be made from grey cloth and the dyeing process initiated as the last stage in the process the business would be far more responsive to sudden changes in the market from one colour to another.

    This is a classic example of asking people to be innovative. If the company has always operated one way then people who have been with the business for many years may not see this opportunity. Even where the opportunity is identified there may be obstacles to overcome. Dyeing cloth prior to production may have been the preferred option for quality reasons. We may need a change in the dyeing process if we are going to achieve quality colours on seams, but that’s what innovation is all about – if there is a benefit, then think about it. Don’t feel constrained by traditional problems.


    Position of an activity can have a significant effect on the reduction of waste in a process. For example, cells making components next to an assembly line reduce the waste in transport and time that occur and are much easier to manage and don’t need complex scheduling systems (visual signals do the job for us). All that is needed is a team leader who works to the assembly line schedule ensuring that the component supply is an hour (or in a truly Lean environment, a minute) ahead of the requirement.


    A question might be “can we do this less?” if the activity is causing difficulties. A classic example is the move from inspecting components to getting the process right so that this is no longer required, or not required to the same degree. An example in Hammer and Champy’s definitive BPR book was credit checking, with the subsequent order delays, of corporations whose credit standing was perfect – and if it wasn’t everyone would know from television news. Using an external credit checking service in these cases was a complete waste of time.  


    We have all experienced this to a great effect personally as organisations are getting us (the customer) to do more of their work. For example, we are asked to renew our car licences online including payment; the utilities have us put our meter readings into their computer systems and reduced their need for meter readers.

    We have always looked for ways of doing this internally within an organisation. In several MLG clients, for example, despatch paperwork used to be printed in the Sales Office and carried to the warehouse to await availability of the product. Significant improvement has come from:

    • Printing such paperwork at the point of use and eliminating the need for it to be carried from the Sales Office.
    • Printing only when an order was due to be despatched and the stock was available, removing the administrative burden of filing and managing documents for orders which aren’t yet due for shipment and for which product isn’t yet available.
    • Providing exception reports for when the stock was not available on time, thereby focussing attention immediately on problems.
    • Creating consolidated picking lists sorted by warehouse location which attacks another of Mr Ohno’s wastes – that of movement.

    In some cases the reassignment may be to another company. The automotive world has generally moved away from all component and sub-assembly manufacturing – items are scheduled to come onto site ready to be fitted into the product. On the other hand we may look to bring additional work in-house. Perhaps we should buy components that aren’t completely finished in order to get greater flexibility from our stock. Possibly we should review the products we supply and provide additional services.

    These latest examples can highlight the difficulties in getting people to think in this way. In a standard course that we provide for a professional body in the UK, we cite two of Shapiro’s examples from the USA. A domestic PC supplier undertakes no manufacturing at all and provides good service through excellent management of the outsourced activities; an Original Equipment (OEM) tyre manufacturer has extended their scope of supply to include fitting the tyres to wheels which are then delivered to the end customer ready for use. On several occasions a delegate has asked “so are you saying that we should outsource, or that we should do more work in-house?” Of course the recommendation is to look at your own business and identify the best approach for you. The solution in your market, with your customers and your products, will be different to that for others. 


    A different toolset can help transform any business. In manufacturing, sophisticated machining centres can eliminate the need to move components between five or six work centres with all the implications identified as wastes within the Lean philosophy. Automated facilities for scanning and tracking can significantly reduce, if not eliminate altogether, errors in any information processing activity such as banking. ‘Manage By Exception’ computer systems such as MRP can do the number-crunching leaving staff to react to messages relating to components arriving late using the one quality that systems do not have – judgement!

    In most improvement projects there is an element of re-tooling with new systems and new skills being required to radically improve the business processes.

These 7Rs then provide a ‘question and answer’ checklist for all improvement activities. “Have we really challenged every pre-conception? Lets walk through each and every ‘R’” is a recurring theme within MLG assignments.