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Innovation in a Zero Capital World: Ask and Trim!

| On 30, Mar 2009

Jack Hipple

In a recent issue of Industry Week (3/16/09) a major point was made about using employee input for continuous improvement without using capital. I would suggest a broader use of this principle through the use, not only of the people resources you have, but a reminder about a powerful, but simple “stretch your mind” concept known as “trimming”.


When we look for resources for continuous improvement, we tend to think about either reducing purchased materials and supplies, energy costs, and labor or improving the yields of these same inputs to our process. How often have you really, sincerely asked your employees some really challenging questions such as:1. How could we increase throughput rates by 25% with little or no spending?2. How could we improve the efficiency of our energy use by 25%?


Why do you assume that you and the senior staff have more knowledge than those executing the business activities on a daily business? Maybe in a few areas you do, but certainly not in all. (I must admit that this was in part triggered today by the firing of the Chairman of GM by the President who has an outstanding career record of running profit making corporations).


Sometimes you don’t get honest answers to these questions because your employees think that if a process or organization becomes significantly more efficient, their jobs may be in jeopardy. Why not offer a guarantee? I saw a real life example of this at a TRIZ innovation workshop in St. Louis, attended by 3 emergency response operators. At the end of the course, I asked everyone in the room what they were going to do with their learnings when they returned to their workplace. Everyone else in the course spouted off a long list of actionable items, while these individuals said they were going to share nothing. I was dumbfounded and asked them why. They replied that, if they did, their department would become more efficient and they would lose their jobs. What a tragedy and waste! You don’t have any situations like that, do you? How do you know?


Another way we normally approach increasing capacity is to start with a base of how much it costs (in operating and capital costs) to produce what we already do. Then our engineering staff calculates how much money we need to spend to increase capacity, reduce energy consumption, increase our distribution network, or to reach new customers. Then we estimate the positive cash flow from these benefits and calculate an ROI to allow us to make a decision.


Several columns ago, we put forward the concept of “trimming”–the arbitrary removal of a part (say an expensive part) of a product or system and then force ourselves to still accomplish its function with the parts that remain. Several simple examples are the “toothpaste in the handle of the toothbrush” product, the “clean the shower while you shower” product, and the the self-reporting of news that is seen on television today. In each of these cases we would have asked the following questions:



  1. How could we get the FUNCTION of the toothpaste tube with just the toothbrush? How much money does that save? How much more money could we charge for such a toothbrush for travelers?

  2. How could we clean the shower while we are showering instead of using a separate process and time?

  3. How could we make the news report itself using the resources already there without our reporters ( the resources by the way are individuals on the spot and their egos at seeing their pictures on TV–a lot cheaper than reporters!).

Now the reporters can focus on higher value work such as news analysis.Times are tough. Capital is tight. Money is tight. No one seems to really know when all the money we are putting into the banking system will stop filling reserves and actually be available for spending. The government in some strange ways is trying to unlock the financial pipeline to get more capital into the system. Why not do it without the capital and stop waiting? If you can accomplish some increases in capacity without significant capital, you’ll be ready long before your competitors are.


These thinking concepts don’t just apply to manufacturing processes. They apply to ANY business process. How can you increase your marketing contacts with no increase in spending? Ask your people and trim. How can you decrease warranty costs with no increase in spending? No increased capital? Ask your people and trim. How can you retain customers? Ask the ones who left and trim (make it easier for them to return and stay). Ask and trim!