Consider This: Agitated? Harness it and Grow

Sept. 15, 2010
Remember mom's admonition to "settle down." Your workplace might benefit from just the opposite advice.

When it comes to economic recovery, manufacturing has become the belle of the ball. After two years of navigating a volatile business climate with white knuckles and cold sweat, manufacturers are continuing to forecast long-term growth at a pace higher than the rest of the economy. Mergers, acquisitions and favorable projections are becoming more common -- much to the relief of U.S. manufacturing executives.

But I wouldn't get too comfortable not even for a second. The work has just begun.

In the time between a recession and a recovery, manufacturers must aggressively pursue the innovations and improvements that will put their organization leaps ahead of their competition. The question is this: After months of just trying to get by, how do companies return from a mindset of survival to a mindset of innovation? From ensuring the house will remain standing to designing the kitchen remodel?

It's called "productive agitation," and it blatantly defies business logic as we know it. Just as things are starting to feel stable again, it's time to rock the boat. Challenge the status quo. Change the way products are manufactured. Go through a shop-floor process overhaul. While most manufacturers are compelled to avoid increased risk right now, the ones that embrace it have the greatest opportunity to emerge from this post-recession environment as a leader.

Think about it. The products and brands that are defining our decade have emerged from productive agitation, including Apple's iPhone and iPad and Toyota's Prius. When Steve Jobs told his team to do the impossible -- create a phone that worked like a computer and was easy enough for his mother to usemany criticized him for straying outside of the computer market. Toyota, which has found itself under fierce fire, recently announced its Design Quality Innovation Division will solely focus on integrating customer feedback into future car designs. Prior to the recall debacle, Toyota set the standard for quality and efficiency. Now the company is positioning itself to reclaim this position as well as drive new features and enhancements in its vehicles.

To be effective, productive agitation requires a process-based approach that balances the right amount of focus, autonomy and accountability. This process includes the following steps:

Establish the boundaries of what needs to be disrupted.

Define the area of your manufacturing organization that needs to be perturbed. Is it R&D? Or is it production floor efficiency? The point is to encourage innovation within an organizational boundary so that the scope may be identified.

Choose an ambitious outcome. Not too long ago, LG Electronics announced its intention to outperform Samsung by 2012. Some industry analysts balked at this aggressive, ambitious goal. However, the company has been motivated and stimulated by a formidable challenge even if it's unclear whether that outcome can be reached. In turn, LG has created an environment of productive agitation where good ideas translate into growing market share.

Assemble a team with the authority to realize the outcome.

The biggest mistake made in productive agitation exercises is setting forth an ambitious outcome without giving the team the autonomy and power to make it happen. Start by assembling a diverse team of experienced high performers who can work through unstructured and ambiguous projects while still maintaining focus on key goals. Then, leave them be. Let them do the work, hit roadblocks and find solutions.

Create and publicize short-term supporting goals.

The endgame here is to create accountability that further motivates the team. By reverse engineering primary goals with smaller, short-term ones -- then publicly declaring those short-term goals -- the team is held accountable to each other, the company and other stakeholders within the organization.

Sponsor events that force collaboration, integration and perturb the team.

Creating events that force collaboration, dialogue and move people to action is instrumental in accomplishing the ambitious outcome at hand. One of the most effective ways to do this is to create a forum where ideas, recommendations and designs can be presented to peers and management. Putting people on stage in front of others and asking them to provide suggestions or share their ideas represents the ultimate accountability -- as well as seeds buy-in for game-changing innovation within your manufacturing organization.

Whether it's electric cars or the next breed of computer chip technology, the viability of these innovations depends upon the leaps made forward in manufacturing. While many companies may feel compelled to run toward stabilization, the ones that move toward change through productive agitation will be tomorrow's success stories.

Charlie Moss is founder of The Moss Group, a strategic consultancy. Charlie is a frequent speaker, writer and advisor on the topic of productive agitation and the role it plays within today's high-performing organizations.

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