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Lessons from the Road: Making Innovation a Capability

July 30, 2013
Companies aren't born innovative, but these four traits help build an innovative company.

Innovation is a popular word today, with plenty of books supporting it. Most pundits promote big innovation programs with innovation departments and innovation plans. But unless you happen to have hired the next Nikola Tesla, this is hardly a sustainable strategy. 

See Also: Manufacturing Innovation & Product Development Strategy

Innovation comes from every corner of the organization, from the receptionist to the salesperson. There are the Teslas out there who are inherently innovative, but companies are not inherently innovative. Innovation as a company trait can be developed through culture and skill building. There are core behaviors and skills that when combined form an innovative company. 

1. Empathy for the customer.

The best innovations come when they start from a customer perspective. You must put yourself in the customers' shoes, and have empathy for their situation and perspective. Amazon is often a good example because their entire culture is based on it. They are now working on same-day delivery -- not next-day delivery, but same-day. It solves the problem of why people need to "run out" and get something, because it just can't wait for next day. 

2. Seeing and solving problems.

Just Born, the iconic maker of Peeps and Mike & Ike, has a foundation of solving problems. In 1953 they bought a company that made marshmallow chick and bunny treats with dozens of women squeezing them out by hand, which was very difficult work. Bob Born, trained as a physicist and engineer, figured out how to automate this difficult process. Today the company can "hatch" 5 million Peeps in a single day. 

Most people would not have seen a problem. They would have just seen a difficult process and the solution would be to hire strong hands capable of squeezing the marshmallow bags. But a problem solver sees the problem inherent to a situation and sets about a deliberate process to resolve it. It's a decision to be a problem solver, and a skill to do it successfully. 

3. Learn by experimenting.

Innovation ultimately requires doing things in new ways. Inherent to that is that you don't know for sure if they're going to work or not. Innovative companies find ways to experiment with two critical traits. First, they find the cheapest and quickest way to test something. Learn from either success or failure fast and cheap. Don't spend six more hours debating it; instead, find a way to test an idea and learn a whole lot more. 

Second, experimenters are not beholden to their ideas. If they just aren't going to work, they are willing to abandon them and move on to something else. There is no sense of loss over the path chosen, just new opportunities. 

4. "Real Artists Ship"

There is a semi-famous video of Steve Jobs during his hiatus from Apple when he's working with the NeXT team. There is a discussion that is evidence of the tension between perfecting a product and declaring it done and shipping it. Steve Jobs has expressed this sentiment in various forms of the phrase "real artists ship." 

A beautiful painting that no one sees or a masterpiece novel that no one reads is useless. Even if you see yourself as an artist, at some point you need to ship your creation. 

There is a company we visited that will remain nameless. In its field, the company's founder was known as an innovator. He had created and shipped many innovations into the field that others copied. But as an innovator, he was also a tinkerer. He would go down to the assembly floor and start tinkering with a product half-finished, and it would remain half-finished. And then he would fiddle with something else. The company was going bankrupt even though it was the most "innovative," had the best margins, and the best products, because it just couldn't ship. 

At the end of the day, execution from concept to launch is still vitally important, and a critical element to innovation is that "artists ship." 

To read more of Jamie Flinchbaugh's articles, visit

I'm honestly not sure if history's most innovative people are born or made that way. But companies develop the capability for innovation, and yours can too. 

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and a co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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