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Innovation in the Work

by John Shook
September 22, 2016

Innovation in the Work

by John Shook
September 22, 2016 | Comments (3)

Innovation is a popular – and important – concept. So, here are three questions. What is it? What does lean thinking have to say about it? So what?

I did some deep-diving recently into this thing we call innovation. It’s interesting how there’s not much in the way of an accepted definition. So, consolidating a lot of stuff from different sources (you’re welcome), running it all through my own filter (apologies!), here’s a stab: An innovation is anything that is novel and valuable. Novel means new. Especially a new idea or method or something that has a “process” piece to it. Valuable – the link here with lean thinking is clear – means that someone, anyone perceives the new thing/method/process as having value. Value from the perceiver’s perspective.


What does lean thinking have to say about innovation? First, I think the word/concept gets overused. Does new or novel mean better? There’s somehow the perception that “innovation” is further up the food chain, higher up the evolutionary scale than lowly “improvement.”  Ever hear this: “Oh, that’s a nice incremental improvement, but what we need is innovation!” Radical innovation. Disruption innovation. Well, sure. We want to be ahead of the curve. To set the trend. Henry Ford. Steve Jobs.

But, while an innovation by definition has “value,” an improvement by definition means the new way is better than the old. From that standpoint, improvement is underrated; it could use an image makeover.

And, I bet you agree, it has become all too common to draw too deep of a distinction between the two. Almost all innovations are actually improvements on things or ideas that already existed. Not much new under the sun. No? What’s under the sun are, literally, the four forces of nature. Just four.

Branford Marsalis (the less famous brother), in reference to the tremendous creativity and innovation that is jazz, observes, “Everything you read about jazz is: ‘Is it new? Is it innovative?’ I mean, man, there's 12 f-ing notes. What's going to be new? You honestly think you're going to play something that hasn't been played already?” Very interesting. Of course, tremendous creativity comes from combinations and the very constraints imposed by the “12 f-ing notes.” Still, Coltrane, Miles, Gershwin – they’re just playing around with the same 12 notes. The universe has four forms of energy.    

Lean Thinking

Lean thinking itself was an innovation (new and valuable) and an improvement over what preceded it (and what still exists in so many places) that contains within itself the means of further innovation and improvement.  Masaaki Imai, to whom we owe much, gave us this framework about 30 years ago:


Imai’s framework is useful in thinking about types of problem solving (though we should add one more, a topic for next time!). Lean thinking suggests, however, that we be careful to not draw the lines between them – sustain + Kaizen + innovation – too harshly. There’s much overlap, with one bleeding into the other.  As lean thinking is itself an innovation, within it are specific methods for innovating  (as there are for kaizen and sustainability, as well) such as set-based innovation, Lean Startup methods, A3 and kata techniques, and most importantly the fundamental approach of engaging everyone in the act of innovating in their own work. Innovation is not the purview only of a chosen few to be applied in only special situations.

So what?

It’s taking that thought further that highlights the deepest contribution of lean thinking – the role of innovation in the work. We think of the iPhone as a tremendous innovation, like the internet, the automobile and now autonomous driving. But, the actualization of each of these, the underappreciated enabler that propelled them to change our lives was, first of all, the many technical innovations that preceded them (no iPhone without iPod, without Macintosh, without Apple II…). And secondly, the innovation in the work to be done entailed in bringing them to life. Here’s an animation that tries to tell that story. I’ll be curious to hear what you think.

(View above or Click HERE to view Innovation in the Work animation)


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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3 Comments | Post a Comment
Chris Deans September 26, 2016

Dear John, Thanks for your post about Innovation in the Work. Over the years you have unknowingly taught me so much and I deeply appreciate your efforts, your wisdom and your willingness to share. Thank you!

You cited Henry Ford and Steve Jobs as practitioners of radical, disruptive innovation, and you are correct. But I am reminded of what Jim Collins had to say in his book, "Great by Choice", about how Steve Jobs brought Apple back from the edge of ruin in 1997. Mr. Collins said, "Steve Jobs didn't so much revolutionize the company as he returned it to the principles he'd used to launch the company from garage to greatness two decades earlier. Steve Job's genius notwithstanding, Apple roared back because it returned, this time with fanatic discipline, to the essence of it's original recipe." In a subsequent interview, John Sculley said, "The same principles Steve is so rigorous about now are the identical ones he was using then."

I highly recommend "Great by Choice" if you haven't already read it. In times like ours, times of unprecedented, radical, unimaginable, ever increasingly rapid change, the path forward can seem completely shrouded in fog - that impenetrable "gray zone" Mike Rother refers to. But despite these uncertainties, success can still be obtained from adherence to a few time honored, proven, immutable principles. 

Of course innovation and change are required to remain competitive and add value; but perhaps even more important are things like fanatic discipline, focus, drive, consistency, scientific method, moving methodically most of the time, but being able to move very quickly when necessary, preparation, etc. None of these are new or innovative, but they are nevertheless core principles of successful organizations.


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Bernd Aures October 10, 2016

I think it is important to connect this three aspects "sustain" (which sometimes is considered to be the hardest one), "kaizen" and "innovate". The idea of overlapping zones between them would be an interesting evolution of the sketch.

From my point of view it may be an option to draw the border between "kaizen" and "innovation" differently by starting at the most left point on the bottom line up to the existing ending point on the top.

Why? In ourdays society also the value-creating workers are open-minded and connected via the internet to the world. So some of them also could have a very good idea that leads to an innovation. 

How does this work with standardized work and quality? I think we have to look at the time line. It's good for a value-creating worker to have an idea, but trying out an experiment should only be done after communication with the supervisor in a secured way to ensure quality in serial process.

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Andrew BIshop October 11, 2016


Thanks!  I appreciated your thoughts on innovation and really enjoyed and appreciated the animation.  It will be a useful teaching tool.

Your observation about rigid distinctions getting in the way is right on.  When our teachers spell out categories (e.g., innovation vs. improvement) some of us get attached to the distinction rather than appreciating the meanings and seeing the intergrades.

Regarding the animation:  What you DIDN'T mention was what first hit me in the openning view - innovation in ergonomics!  Great to see all those Toyota workers standing up!

I anticipate using this video to illustrate, among other things, the application of the "four questions" and the different answers a worker would have given 100 years ago and today in an auto plant, and to get people thinking about their answers in our healthcare setting.  

So many concepts and ideas illustrated in such a short video!

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