Collaboration In The Supply Chain Speeds Innovation

Collaboration In The Supply Chain Speeds Innovation

Visual communication creates better supply chain integration allowing innovation to occur at a much faster pace.

In the 21st century, competitive advantage is created by an organization's ability to develop innovations that solve problems quicker and create new products or services in less time. Such innovations enable people or organizations to accomplish objectives faster, easier or with fewer resources.

Innovations have been the engine for the tremendous advancements in productivity in the recent decades. Hardware developments like 6 axis machine tools or placement machines in electronics as well as advanced CAD software for product design have amplified human efforts several fold.

In the U.S., productivity improvements in the overall economy from 1977-2002 were 53%. Manufacturing, typically the leader in new innovations, increased productivity by 109% during the same time period. (U.S. Census Bureau). So what traits do these innovative teams and organizations have in common? Recent studies into creative organizations and projects uncovered the following common denominators:

  • Creative discontent with current situation;
  • Tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity;
  • Cross fertilization of idea from different fields of knowledge;
  • Willingness to take risk and strong culture of experimentation, constantly trying and testing small improvements;
  • Participation in richly connected social networks;
  • Questioning accepted knowledge, testing/search for true cause and effect;
  • Reversing a process, willingness to examine problems from many perspectives; and
  • Culture of learning.

Collaboration / Innovation Cycle

Many of these traits are communication intensive activities, requiring participation from multiple groups or individuals across multiple functions. These traits often support teams as they move through the various phases or steps of the collaboration/innovation cycle (see Figure 1). In this cycle, collaboration leads to idea discovery; which becomes the foundation for an innovative product or service.

This innovation is then further developed to become a true product or service and then brought to market. Often such innovations spark additional collaboration and innovation in other industries.

The speed that a team or organization moves through the different steps of this cycle can determine if a new product or idea gets to market first or is contending with other innovative products for the customers attention. The challenge for organizations today is how to support these collaborative efforts cost effectively and how to accelerate the cycle.

Speeding Innovation: Visual Communication And Collaboration

The frequency, quality and ease of communication that support all the participants in this cycle will have a great impact on the speed of idea-discovery. At the heart of this collaboration/innovation cycle is the communication strategy. When organizations have geographically dispersed footprints, collaboration with peers and suppliers becomes more difficult.

However, the power of visual communication solutions today is that the technology allows individuals or teams to interact with each other face-to-face, as well as share documentation, drawings, samples or prototypes simultaneously, over video. Visual communication enables faster understanding, and collaboration occurs at a much more rapid pace. Being able to see and hear ideas at the same time builds stronger corporate identification, teamwork and trust.

The expertise of the supply chain can be integrated more easily during the early design phase of product development. The powerful dynamic that a majority of a product's costs are determined by decisions that occur very early in the design phase is a well understood aspect of product development. It is important to facilitate frequent collaboration during this critical phase with key individuals that have expertise to contribute.

Collaboration For Continuous Improvement

Collaboration processes are commonplace in manufacturing organizations. One critical methodology used in manufacturing for team-based improvements is the technique of kaizen meetings. These meeting are supported by data that characterize a process or condition that is being investigated. A team associated with the process, possibly including some technical experts, is assembled to work on improvements. These are structured collaborative events that build on the strengths of the team and their experiences. They start by understanding what forces created the present condition and brainstorm on new ideas to build a new level of performance.

These events work best when the team meets near the process they are studying and can "go see" the process for themselves. The other hallmark of good kaizen projects is that they frequently meet for short periods of time (20-30 minutes) to generate momentum and progress. The ability to tie a supplier into these improvement efforts with little cost through video, extending the process improvement capabilities deeper into the supply chain, can have powerful benefits.

In a multi-plant environment, visual communications enables best practices to be shared across multiple locations much more easily. Operators in one plant can actually see how the other plant has solved a problem or implemented an innovation.

Visual communications eliminates much of the travel previously required for sharing and implementing best practices as well as reduces productivity lost to travel. In a visually-enabled supply chain and multi-plant environment, teamwork and cooperation are constantly reinforced with frequent targeted meetings that build on each success the team experiences. Collaboration over distances becomes commonplace and geographic separation becomes a transparent issue as innovation is implemented on a more global scale.

When an effective visual communication strategy is integrated with the work process, enabling collaboration within the work activities, significant process improvements are achieved. The integration of visual communication into a business process enables new level of performance and the process becomes more inclusive despite and geographic barriers. Business applications that are used to collaborate (CAD programs, data networks or documents, etc.) can be viewed simultaneously as the team visually collaborates in a seamless exchange of ideas and discoveries leading to breakthrough innovations.


John Paul Williams, Market Development Manager, Manufacturing, TANDBERG is an global operations executive leading innovations in manufacturing, quality and engineering. He has been a senior quality officer implementing Lean Manufacturing & Six Sigma methods, including developing strategic sourcing partnerships that increased competitive advantage. One of the plants he managed was the sole winner of the North American Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence. TANDBERG is a global provider of visual communication products and services. TANDBERG designs, develops and markets systems and software for video, voice and data.

John Paul Williams can be contacted at [email protected] for more information.

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