Thursday, 28 June 2012

How to Beat the Age Old ‘Right First Time’ Vs ‘Innovation’ Conflict:

‘Accelerated Learning Before Output.’

I was talking to some colleagues last night about the current emphasis on operational process reliability and new product innovation - heated discussion to say the least.

For me (and many), innovation means ‘The Successful Introduction of New Ideas.’ Whether the 'Idea' is a new gadget, inspired service, glitzy Broadway show, exciting experience, a production process, whatever! And 'Success' in terms of economic growth, or profit, or a cultural change, or piece of technology, or just plain good fun!

However, it is the word ‘New’ that is in conflict here with the term ‘Right First Time.’

‘New’ means some degree of Novelty (from fairly new to fundamentally new). And that means that the new idea is inherently unknown in all or some or its dimensions. Thus Novelty leads to a range of unknowns, uncertainties, risks and compounding complexity.

But think of this: can you remember the first time you learned to ride a bike  (knee grazes)? Recall your first driving lesson (scary)? First Personal Computer encounter (frustrating)?

All those first time encounters were unfamiliar. They were ‘Novel’ experiences. You didn’t have an inherent experience and expertise to ride, drive or compute effectively 'Right First Time.'

So, how is anyone expected to innovate – especially complex game changing innovation – right first time?

And there is more here:

Instill a mandate, and ultimately a culture of ‘Right First Time’ and you won’t be doing anything that original in the first place. Because demanding and measuring people’s performance on Right First Time will eliminate risk taking, eliminate pushing the envelope, and totally eliminate adventurous ideas.

Your people will temper behaviours and outcomes they cannot get right at the first bat. Pursue stuff that is easy to do. Stuff that is easy for the competition to copy. Stuff that is easy to measure for success. And design and make stuff the customer can buy anywhere else.

So what to do?

Change the ‘Right First Time’ mandate to ‘Accelerated Learning Before Output.’


Learn before output. Experiments will blow up in the lab. There will be acts of nature on the prototype production line. Your people will faux pas. That's innovation and learning beyond knowledge. If you weren't learning beyond knowledge, then it has been done before; and that ain't innovation. Innovation is centrally driven by learning. It drives out uncertainties and risks. The faster you learn and adapt, the more you appreciate and empathize the problems you face, the more cogent the solutions you devise. You are in Terra Incognito after all!

Create a learning environment. This is not just about tools and toys to design, experiment and test the idea (although they are central). It's about a learning  culture. We’ve all heard of the ‘Fifth Discipline’ the so-called Learning Organisation. But how many commit and institutionalise the philosophy into the bones of their businesses? Few, I can tell you. Get the kit, the methodologies, and do team learning and team dialogue development. If you don’t you stay at square-one: slow, staggered, disjointed and round in cycles learning.

Start with a series of small steps. Babies start with small journeys, often holding on to your hand or the furniture. In business terms such small steps are taken through tests, trials and prototyping. The quicker this happens the bigger the success. As Michael Bloomberg wrote of his business media company:

While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make the design perfect, we’re already on prototype version-5. By the time our rivals are ready with wires and screws, we are on version #10. It gets back to planning versus acting: We act from day one; others plan how to plan-for months.’ 

Of course, to succeed such learning-innovation cycles require a culture of openness. Encouraging people to share their failures as well as their successes, and celebrating both, will give your team the motivation to try new things. Instead of wasting time hiding failure at performance reviews, your people will be onto the next iteration (or two, or three) of the concept.

Be persistent. No matter how many times they fall over, little tikes will dust themselves down and have another go. Similarly, I have written elsewhere about Tesco’s persistence in developing their Express format. Far from being an overnight success, it took six years for the company to develop a model they could roll-out. The key to their ultimate success was their refusal to give up. Management believed that the convenience format would be a key driver of future growth. It was therefore not a question of if they should develop the new concept, but simply a question of how it should be developed – even after failing to get it right first (second and third) time. 

Get real tests from the highest value and most sensitive experiments; first. To further accelerate learning, focus on the highest value and most sensitive experiments earliest. The greater the success rate experienced with the most valuable and sensitive experiments, the more reliable and valuable an innovation is likely to be. A high value experiment is one that is unlikely to be successful, yet is successful. That is, if a complex or novel piece of technology or process is made to work reliably, you are likely to gain a competitive advantage and increase the premium for that technology. In parallel, a sensitive experiment is one that is either uncertain in terms of outcome, or one that dramatically affects down-stream activities. Without attention to the highest value and most sensitive experiments earliest, a prototype can move down a less than satisfactory path. For example, aircraft engines have to contend with the possible ingestion of flocks of birds. So one of the vital things you do to qualify an engine is to go out at some point to your local chicken farm, buy several gross of chickens, put them into the barrel of a huge 'Chicken gun' and fire them at the engine. It is the ultimate sensitivity test. Now consider this: a well known aerospace firm spent several years and about a £100 million on a new graphite based jet turbine; then it fails the Chicken test. Reworking cost them a big share of the market. Furthermore, if the more sensitive tests are left until later, many of the more certain outcome experiments will simply be a vein and wasted effort. The key here is to search for the most uncertain problems or concepts. Ask: what can you quickly do right now, without fuss, that will prove or disprove the direction you think we should go?

Get prototypes to breaking point as quickly as possible. Accelerated strife (stress-life) experiments push the design to its limits prematurely. After all, the true nature of any performance experiment is to move what you are trying to learn to its breaking point. If not, learning before (output) production and market launch will be wholly disabled. This is achieved by gradually raising the loads and changing the environmental strains to the point where the prototype or final product, passively or catastrophically fails. This gives insight into areas for improvement and/or potential early failure in the field. TCT prototype experiments is key to this. For example, durable products, such as Sony’s MP3 players or Apple's razor-thin i-phones go through traumatic strife experiments and tests covering any failure mode from zapping with static electricity, dropping on to concrete from 3 meters, baking at elevated temperatures for months on end, and so on. Through rapid prototype experiments Sony and Apple are continually finding new ways to make their product’s performance more robust and reliable under extreme environmental and user stresses and strains.


How Do You to Beat the Age Old ‘Right First Time’ Vs ‘Innovation’ Conflict?

‘Accelerated Learning Before Output.’

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