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More Art than Science: Tips for Boosting Innovation at Your Factory

Aug. 26, 2014
Clearly, innovation works. Less clear is how to create a culture that fosters innovation. While there’s no magic formula, these tips should help to get you started.

Innovation is an oft-used buzzword in North American business culture, treated as if it were some magical elixir capable of healing the most injured industry.

Sometimes, there’s truth to the hyperbole. Look at the impact of additive technology on manufacturing. Shipments of 3D printers priced under $100,000 are expected to rise 73.5% this year, to just under 100,000 units, Statista reports.

Meanwhile, North American manufacturing continues to expand. According to the latest data from the RBC Canadian Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, or PMI, manufacturing activity rose to 54.3 last month -- up from 53.5 in June and an eight-month high. (A score of 50 or above signals growth.) In the U.S., The Institute of Supply Management’s index of U.S. manufacturing activity rose to 57.1, a high not seen in three years. Overall economic growth checked in at 3.5%.

Clearly, innovation works. Less clear is how to create a culture that fosters innovation. While there’s no magic formula, the following five tips should help to get you started:

1. Run contests. Find out who your innovators are by running contests to find the best ideas for improving output, safety, and other areas that matter to you as a factory manager. Keep the rewards simple but compelling: an extra day off, a gift card for a family dinner at a nearby restaurant, and the like.

2. Turn your winners into an "innovation squad." Once you’ve identified your top innovators, set them loose. Sponsor a day away once a month for them to conduct site visits or brainstorm new ideas. Create one-off contests where rewards are tied to the successful implementation of commissioned prototypes.

3. Set milestones and measure success. As with everything in the business, you need a mechanism for measuring your efforts. Track time spent on projects. Set goals for your innovation squad and check in quarterly. While there’s no predicting when inspiration will become innovation, you can keep the process from becoming unwieldy.

4. Focus on pain points. You can also guide your team. Innovation is only as useful as it provides pain relief to the business. Convene a strategy session with your top executives and make a list of systemic problems that might be addressed with technology or process innovations. Rank them from most to least troublesome.

5. Give everyone a stake. While it’s most cost-efficient to have your innovation squad focused on the big problems, you also don’t want to limit yourself. Create a process for allowing everyone on the floor to contribute ideas. Follow it up by advertising a bounty to be paid if the innovation squad takes the idea on as a management-approved experiment.

Innovation tends to be more art than science. And yet there are specific scientific steps you can take to boost your odds of finding a breakthrough. Run contests. Form up your most creative thinkers into an innovation squa’ with the freedom to experiment. Focus effort on known pain points and measure success. And give everyone a stake.

None of us can predict when innovation is about to strike. But we can prepare to capture its benefits.

John Mills is executive vice president of Business Development at Rideau Recognition Solutions, a global leader in employee rewards and recognition programs designed to motivate and increase engagement and productivity across the workforce.

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