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Pottery Class: a Parable for Idea Generation

May 23, 2008
Story provides many lessons for manufacturing community.

The story goes that there was once a pottery teacher who decided to conduct an experiment.

At the beginning of the year, she divided the class in two parts. She instructed the first half to work together all year to create one perfect piece of pottery. The second group she instructed to work together to create as many pieces as possible.

The first group would be graded on the quality of their one piece. The second group would be graded on the number of pieces they created.

At the end of the year, the first group had created one near perfect piece. The second group created one large pile, of mostly poor quality pieces. The pieces at the bottom of the pile were especially poor. Curiously, the pieces in the middle of the pile were somewhat better.

The teacher asked the students what they had done differently when they made the pieces in the middle.

"Did you start focusing on quality instead of quantity?"

The students answered they had done nothing different. In fact, they felt they were cranking out lousy pottery much faster than at first.

Amazingly, the pieces nearer the top of the pile kept getting better and better.

The teacher climbed a ladder to reach the piece at the very top of the pile, which the students had rushed to make in the last minutes of the last day of class. She took it down admiringly, and placed it next to the near perfect piece created by the first group. The students gasped in amazement; the first piece was nowhere near the quality of the second.

One of the students in the second group asked the teacher, "How could this be? We weren't even trying to make a good piece, and we created a masterpiece."

The teacher, with a knowing smile, replied, "By going forward from mistake to mistake with great enthusiasm, you have ultimately created a masterpiece. Now live your life in the same manner. Go forward with great enthusiasm; throw your failures on the pile without concern. Ultimately, you will create a masterpiece with your life."

The moral of this story, as it applies to your manufacturing organization?

  1. Fail fast, fail cheap, fail often, fail forward.

    Change your outlook on failure. Failure is a critical part of the success process. Winston Churchill said, "Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm." If you were standing in a room full of rocks and you knew somewhere in that pile of rocks was a diamond worth $1 million, you'd search through that pile of rocks as fast as you could. Use "soft tooling" to try out your ideas before committing large sums of money. Every failure is a learning opportunity. Edison discovered 11,000 ways not to make a light bulb before finding the one that worked.
  2. Forget about silver bullets.

    Don't look for that one breakthrough idea to revolutionize your business. "When our new (fill in the blank) customer/product/machine/department head/consultant comes on board, we'll be ok." Would you bet your retirement fund on one silver bullet stock?
  3. Keep paddling.

    Focus on implementing large quantities of small ideas, most of them making only a small difference by themselves. The key here is to implement the ideas, not discuss, debate, or analyze them to death.
  4. Ideas are what we do.

    Equip and encourage everyone to implement large quantities of ideas. Don't allow improvement ideas to only be the responsibility of your "lean champion," management, or your consultant. Ideas must be part of everyone's job. We cannot afford to not have time to work on improvement ideas.
  5. Raise the bar.

    Expect better and better ideas to be birthed from the implementation of mediocre ideas. Dig into small ideas for bigger ideas that address the root cause. Equip people with the right information and training to discover better ideas. Most people come to work in the morning wanting to do a good job, but often lack the proper information to make good decisions.

If you implement the ideas given here, your grade will be "A" for the quality of service you provide your customers, the return seen by your stakeholders, and the culture enjoyed by your workforce.

Doug Bengson is a manufacturing specialist with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a private nonprofit organization committed to the growth and success of Wisconsin manufacturers. Bengson specializes in helping area companies make the transition to lean culture. For more information, contact Bengson at 920-810-7629 or [email protected].

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