High quality innovations. Oxymoron?

dilbert_startup_innovationThinking about innovation and quality management may lead us to contradictions. Preparing to this article I have found number of empirical case studies that  describe the relationship between quality management practices and innovation performance. One of such may be found here.

[…] several scholars reject the positive relationship between TQM and innovation for the reason that it possesses principles and practices that could hinder innovation. Slater and Narver (1998) and Wind and Mahajan (1997) agree that a customer focus philosophy could easily lead organizations to focus only on incremental improvements in their current products and service activities rather than trying to create novel solutions. Consequently, this leads to the development of uncompetitive “me-too” products rather than the development of real innovation. Customer focus, therefore, could build a “tyranny of the served market” in which managers see the world only through their current customers’ eyes. In this way, such firms could fail to explore customers’ latent needs.

Authors convince that quality management practices may positively influence innovations by creating a safe environment for them.

Combining the two sections of the above analysis provides a plausible evidence and explanation on the positive and significant relationship between TQM practices and innovation performance because not only TQM itself would lead to innovation performance, but the quality performance resulting from TQM practices also contributes to innovation performance. […] This means that although quality management does not directly result in innovation, organizations that want to pursue a high innovation performance must have the capability to manage quality requirements of their products before hand, as asserted by Bolwijn and Kumpe (1990) and Ferdows and DeMeyer (1990). In other words, quality management is a prerequisite for innovation management, and, therefore, TQMis necessary although not sufficient for innovation

How it looks like from employee’s perspective? As an engineer I like discoveries, experiments and innovations. I realize that my interests may lead me to failures. In most cases unacceptable in a corporate environment.  It is a difficult task to be innovative and reliable in the same time. It is difficult to be innovative inside the well-working factory. Where is the golden mean between standardization and innovations?

Professor Kastelle, who is working on innovations, suggest a 70/20/10 division between the time spending on improving existing products, discovering solutions and exploring completely new business areas. It is a clear idea, but often unacceptable in a corporate environment. In case a failure, 10% is an unacceptable waste of time. What employees can do to be innovative in such company?  It depends. My experiences and observations lead me to the following conclusions.

  1. Company and employee have to understand innovations exactly in the same way.  There are plenty of different definitions of innovation. Strange, but true. “How to manage innovations” article on Forbes clarifies this problem. What is your definition?
  2. Realize that internal competition is not always good. Would you share your idea with the whole company without worrying about what happened next? What do you feel when your idea will go to different department? Jealous? Anger? Why? Sounds like survival instinct… Meanwhile, you may also get the project from different department in the same way.
  3. Realize that in most cases your skills or even your department are not sufficient to build a novel product, e.g: by combining a disk with the display and joystick we get an iPod. Wide knowledge about technology itself lead us to innovative ideas. Ideas come from other ideas. Ideas may be developed and improved as software.
  4. Innovative ideas might come from previous failures: if something doesn’t work, maybe something else will do. Such failures are not a waste of time.

In simple words, again… communication, trust, cooperation, knowledge sharing, learning from mistakes. Is start-up culture sufficient for innovation then?

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