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Innovation in Hard Times

| On 27, Feb 2009

Jack Hipple

It’s all around us. The language of hard times is everywhere, in every journal, every newspaper, in the State of the Union address, in your stockbroker statements, and in your daily conversations. In a short, but insightful article in Chemical and Engineering News on February 2, Melody Voith summarized the dilemma facing industry and how different companies are approaching the situation.


In my last commentary, I described the brute force approach being used by some companies and the huge loss of human energy and resources that result. In Melody’s article, some more creative approaches were described. One of the most striking and simple was that used by DuPont, which also saw the signals early and set a plan in motion before a crisis occurred. Each employee was asked to identify 3 things that he/she could do to immediately conserve cash and reduce costs. How much more positive than laying a large number of people off and then asking the rest the same question!


This approach illustrates the use of the TRIZ problem solving principle of “Do it in Advance”, as well as that of “trimming”. If you recall this simple tool, we just look at a system and arbitrarily remove a part of it and then ask how we can retain the function that was provided with the parts of the system that are left. We are normally applying this thinking in products such as the Michelin Tweel(TM), the toothbrush with the toothpaste in the handle, the cleaning system without a bucket, a fireplace without a fire, and many more.


But the principle works in a business and strategy sense as well. This needs to be done in the right way to pay off big time. We can say we need fewer sales people if customers will come to us on the web. Now that the need for some of the sales force has been eliminated, we could just lay them off. Or we could take them and explore new applications and markets that we always said we didn’t have time to look at. We could use them to assist in that long range planning that we know is so important, but never got to. They could look at patents that get in our way and suggest the ones to circumvent.


One of the more interesting innovation tools that can be used is to ask everyone in your organization, “What skill do you have that we are not aware of or are not using to its full potential”? This will generate a very interesting discussion list for you.Layoffs and downsizings are easy. Using resources in a clever and competitive way is not, but far more productive in the long term.