Donald J. Patti

Does “Process Improvement” Kill Creativity?

In Auto Industry, Business, Ethics and ideology, Manufacturing, Quality, Technology on 23 January 2009 at 1:58 pm

Early in my career, ISO-9000 was just coming into vogue and my employer, Manpower had earned the honor of being called ISO-9000 certified.  To say the least, the ISO-9000 concept was a little irritating to a young, creative-type:  Processes are documented, standardized, and followed without deviation because deviation yields an inconsistent outcome and inconsistent quality.  Even worse, ISO-9000 principles were being applied by Manpower not to manufacturing but to services, where the human factor was so important.  While people certainly admire the fact that a Hershey bar has the same consistently delicious taste, would the feel the same if the Service Rep at a Manpower office answered the phone in an identical manner every time, smiled at visitors in the identical manner and greeting them with the same Mr. or Ms. in the same robotic way?  Somehow, ISO-9000 seemed to be forcing the soul out of services and driving creativity out of the American worker.  This would not stand.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and I am now the devil I once cursed.  A leader of IT endeavors of all kinds, I regularly propose improvements to and then standardize processes for the company and clients I serve. To-be diagrams evolve into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), guidelines or end-user documentation. Similarly, systems are built with virtual guard rails that keep users from driving off the side of a digital cliff, enforcing the business rules and guidelines that are at times irritating and often restrictive, forcing workers to not only perform the same task repeatedly, but forcing them to do it in exactly the same way for sake of consistency.

Staring the enemy in the eye every time I pass a mirror, I think about what I’ve done. With such limits and constraints, how can creativity establish a foothold, much less flourish?  Have I not killed the entrepreneurial spirit of co-workers and end-users, alike?  With all these constraints, how many good ideas have been stifled, delayed or killed? Has the work I’ve done under the banner “Process Improvement” standardized our work to the point that we’re all nothing more than automatons?

A big believer in creativity and diverse thinking, I know that the World’s greatest innovations come from ignoring conventional wisdom and trying something a different way, so these questions are not trivial.  I think my answer, however, comes from two disparate figures:  Geoffrey A. Moore and Kiichiro Toyoda.

For those of you who don’t know Moore, he’s a business geek’s ultimate hero — the man behind the technology adoption lifecycle, Crossing the Chasm, and Dealing with Darwin.  It is in Dealing with Darwin that Moore introduces the concept of reallocating business resources from context to core.  Context is all that work done by employees that does NOT separate your business from its competitors.  Cores represents all work that is critical to delivering your products or services uniquely; core helps to separate you from your competitors and is the leading driver of innovation.  According to Moore, businesses spend far too much of their time (80%) in context activities and far too little in core (20%) involved in the core.

Let’s apply this to process improvement and process standardization.  These exercises provide a window for innovation, then they lock down a process so that it yields consistent results.  They also reduce a business’ emphasis on context activities by removing unnecessary steps and automating once-manual processes.  So, more time can be spent on the core, where a business can differentiate itself, developing new products or services with the creative mind.

Kiichiro Toyoda had a similar mindset nearly fifty years earlier when he developed the Kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement and the lean manufacturing concept targeting the elimination of waste.   Founder of Toyota Motor Corp, Toyoda had a keen eye that focused human efforts on eliminating waste and improving processes rather than perpetually repeating them without question.  Combined, Kaizen and lean are key reasons why Toyota leads in sales and product quality and why Toyota employees are among the happiest in the industry.

So, considering Toyoda and Moore when reflecting upon my past sins in the areas of process improvement and standardization, I’ve developed a few principles to keep in mind as we standardize:

(1) Wherever possible and cost-effective, automate.  There’s no sense in having people do work that a machine or computer can do faster and more consistently, especially when this is sure to dull the human capacity for innovation.  Instead, people should monitor repetitive processes, not do them.

(2) Involve workers and end-users in innovation.  Your best ideas often come from the line-worker, the front desk staff or a computer system’s end-users.  This also gives them an opportunity to flex their mental muscles.

(3) Focus your employees on creative efforts inside the core.  If you have people who are spending their time trying to marginally improve legacy products or services, redirect them to activities that create new products or radically transform current ones — efforts that will benefit most from the human capacity toward innovation.

(4) Leave room for creativity and individuality.  Where product quality won’t suffer and humans are involved in production, leave room for creativity and individuality.   This one is the hardest to follow, because we know that a consistent product is best created by a consistent process.  But, avoiding excessive detail in a process leaves room for grass-roots innovation and keeps the human mind engaged.

(5) Build a World that is Human-Centric.  Human beings are inherently creative and intuitive:  We move beyond patterns to think of completely different ways to solve a problem, create art or experience life.  All of the products, services and processes that we create need to remain human-centric, recognizing that they exist for the benefit of humans and to add value to the human experience.

Looking back at my list, I’m not fully satisfied that I’ve slayed the demon who kills creativity in the name of process and quality. Nor am I certain that there’s an easy way to balance the need for high quality with the need for innovation and human creativity.  But, at least I have a set of principles to follow to measure my progress.

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  1. fanstastic post. I came across Kaizen and lean manufacturing in college. gonna look up moore and get reading..

    1 point i want to make here is that the restrictions process standardization places on innovation are quite outweighed by the a) reduction on the quality-control-and-review overhead and b)ease of knowledge/knowhow transferability on any product / service. Standardization tends to remove the need for individual heroics to keep a process going. This frees up time and mental space for _real_ innovation.

    Typically, only a fraction of a group of people is going to consistently and successfully innovate. These people need to be kept focussed on core innovation. Come up with something new, define it, flesh it out, standardize the process so that it moves from core to context, rinse and repeat. A self-sustaining cycle.

    • I certainly agree with your point about only a fraction of people successfully innovating and perhaps that’s a little hard for me to accept. There a people who can do the same thing over and over again and not care that there may be a better way? Though I cannot speak for other countries, I also think that the U.S. education system emphasizes innovation and creativity heavily, so we’re literally teaching people to be highly creative and then putting them into jobs where creativity is discouraged or at least limited. That’s a quite a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.

  2. test of reply.

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