Enabling Innovation Through Lean Improvement

This is part of my ongoing Lean Disruption series where I write about how to combine Innovation Theory, Lean, Lean Startup, Agile, and Lean product development.

Since values and metrics drive processes how can you enable innovation in an organization that isn’t completely willing to support innovation? As I mentioned before Skunkworks are a key component in this process. Using emergent strategies with Lean Startup tools such as the Lean Canvas are another key method to enable innovation with the skunkworks approach. However, not every organization can or will truly allow this approach.

In organization that cannot or will not support a skunk works approach to innovation what options are available? In the case where you are a manager of more than yourself you have the ability to implement Lean within your small organization. Owning the processes within your organization and becoming a coach to your employees, can begin enabling metrics that drive customer centric focus.

This is possible by taking a single step and picking a metric that will move the metrics that your bosses care about. Focus on improving one process at a time. Start with something that is completely in your control, such as how you hand off material within your group that goes to other groups. Measure the number of errors your group introduces, however do not blame people. If things are wrong investigate the root cause of the problem rather than accusing your people of causing the problems. Problems can come from the group that handed off the work. In those cases, create a process to review the work looking for errors and then work with the team supplying that work to eliminate those errors where you can.

In the case where there are errors within your team, you work together to uncover each source of the problem. As a manager you own the processes as much as the result of the work your team does. The final output of your work is 100% dependant on the processes that lead to those output. Another important step is to work on converting your daily meeting, assuming you have one, into a daily standup rather than a typical beat and greet. These meetings instead must cover the goals for the day, issues from the day before, and follow up to address those issues. In the case where the team has projects they are working on, this can become an opportunity to being pulling in some agile stand up practices, such as “What did you work on yesterday, what do you plan on working today, and do you have any impediments?” These questions can help change the way projects are run within your group.

To improve processes within your group, the best way to do this is to go to where work is being done. You must actually watch as work is being done, while keeping in mind that the way work is being done will change as you watch people work. Make sure they are aware that you are not going to be critical or even record who is doing the work at the time. Record the information and move on. You should not use this information in their next 1 on 1 or review. The goal is to learn how people are doing work especially across work types and workers. After you map the process review the results in your daily stand up to discuss potential issues. Partner with your team to find the root cause of the problem and empower them to make changes to their processes.

Before you change the process it is important to measure current state and measure the impact of those changes on the metrics that matter to you. Keeping in mind that you must make all changes from a customer’s perspective. These are the easier things to implement. However, making changes and getting support in this change from your leadership isn’t going to be easy, so you must show that you’re making wins and improving the result of your work. That’s all leaders care about.

Successful process improvement opens the way to broader innovations. Start small and then move into larger projects as you have a better understanding of what you are trying to do.

Innovation and Lean

I’ve been doing a lot of reading around Disruption Theory, Lean product develop, and Lean Startup theory including the application of all three. One of the more interesting aspects of Disruption theory is that people hire products to do specific jobs. This is fairly similar to the questions that Lean Startup and product development ask, what problem are you trying to solve. This hired to solve a job approach seems to instill some limitations if these jobs aren’t continually re-evaluated. For example, in the Innovator’s Solution they talk about RIM and their Blackberry device, now this book was written in the early 2000s, which means that there was an actual debate if they should include cellular service or not. They argue that the job RIM is hired to do is to provide short periods of distraction to business people.

The risk of not re-evaluating these jobs on an extremely frequent basis, such as quarterly or annually, would likely lead to missing out on something like the iPhone. What I found interesting in this section of the book is that they argue against cramming every type of feature into a single device. I think that, at the time, this was sound advice due to the limitations of the technology, the costs of doing that, and immaturity of the markets still.

I believe this is where the Lean Startup approach really would help. Innovator’s Solution basically argues for the minimum viable product for a given job. Afterwards, through collecting data on how the users actively use the product the team can learn in which direction the product should mature. Through engaging continually with the customers it’s possible to understand and, with the right questions, determine if and when the job the product is hired to do is starting to change over time.

For example, iTunes was originally designed to be a light weight music playing piece of software. The job was to play music. Over time, because of the goal to move up market and capture other markets, Apple added new features, changing the jobs that iTunes was capable to fulfill. In some cases this lead to clear overserving customers and has since been accused of becoming bloatware. Using the correct metrics Apple would know if they were losing market share or if their market share was being artificially maintained because of the iPhone/iPad. This means that the music playing space is clearly ripe for disruption. The most popular product is over serving most of the market and causes excess performance drain on systems using the software. This is clearly why, despite iTunes popularity, services like Last.fm, Pandora, and Google Music are so popular. They are meeting the market where the market is and moving.

Over the next few weeks I plan to explore these theories and techniques in more detail. I plan to work towards something of a unifying theory and then attempt to deploy them in a startup of my own and write a book about the process. I have no idea what startup I plan to start but that’ll be half the fun! As a writer for KBMOD, I plan to work with the leaders of that team and deploy these theories with them. Hopefully seeing positive results for those guys.