Building a Post-it Note culture for continuous improvement
The success of good ideas are not accidents: they need space and time to be discovered and shared
Everyone knows the story of the birth of the Post-it Note - how it was an accidental discovery that became one of 3M’s most beloved products. What you may not know is that it didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t entirely an accident.
While the invention of the low-stick reusable adhesive that makes the Post-it possible was a laboratory mishap-made-good, the actual product took years to develop and was part of a deliberate ‘bootlegging’ culture that 3M had carefully cultivated. It allowed for a percentage of the technical staffs’ time to be devoted to pet projects in the hope new products would emerge.
That commitment to innovation under the surface has led 3M to hold over 22,000 patents, many derived from the ‘bootlegging’ program.
Google is another famous example of innovation being coded into the company culture.
Products like Gmail, AdSense and Google News have resulted because the company allows its developers time to think of creative opportunities for growth. Reports suggest up to 20% of some teams’ time is devoted to ‘pet projects’ and out-of-the-box ideas that are developed at the ground level and outside the typical channels.
Innovation is not a happy accident
Not every company can afford to carve out that kind of space for new research though, and nor should they. Not all businesses need to be developing new products at the pace Google does, and few organizations have the kind of production capital necessary to take so many good ideas and turn them into viable market opportunities.
But there is still a vital lesson here: innovation happens when you make room for it.
Continuous improvement is innovation at the process level. It’s where organizations take stock of what they do, how it’s done, and whether there is a better way. Unfortunately, it often suffers from a lack of focus and limited resources, as the day-to-day running of the business crowds out creative thinking and reflection on the processes that make everything happen.
While most companies can’t dedicate a significant portion of their workforce’s time to researching new products, even a small allocation of effort to process improvement can yield benefits when, rather than making new things, you make the current ones work more efficiently and effectively.
Look and listen
Just like 3M and Google can testify, your most valuable process resources are already part of your company. The people that participate in the everyday tasks of your business are subject matter experts. They know the equipment, the processes and the people involved, and are perfectly placed to innovate on what you are doing.
Engaging business teams in the process culture invites them to take the good ideas they have and invest in them. Seeking suggestions and providing avenues for process feedback legitimizes process evolution and gives a forum for new ideas.
What one division might already be doing through years of hard-won experience could save the company thousands when it is brought into the light and replicated across the business.
Take the roof off
Often continuous improvement stalls when too many constraints are introduced too early. Just as Google encourages its teams to think outside the box, business teams need to know there is room for creative solutions, at least in the early stages of process improvement.
Hold ‘blue-sky’ brainstorming sessions where nothing is sacred and there are no limits on the possibilities. Let teams daydream about what they’d like the processes to look like, then begin filtering them through the lenses of possibility. You’d be surprised how many ‘silly’ ideas have a nugget of realism at the core, and the potential to reduce waste, save time and increase customer satisfaction.
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Resource it like you mean it
Google gives its teams a fifth of their working week to explore new ideas. 3M allows 10-15% of staff time to be spent dreaming up the next Post-it Note.
What would happen if you gave your business teams 5% of their week to reconsider what they do? That’s two hours out of their week that they could dedicate to reinventing the processes and procedures that fill their days.
Whether it’s researching how automation solutions could reduce errors and processing time for admin staff, or looking into digitizing documentation to reduce the costs of printing and sending physical contracts around the country, those few hours could return a significant saving in time and cost across the organization.
As well as providing the freedom to discover those opportunities, create a structure to capture them. Plenty of businesses don’t capitalize on the creative strength of their workforce by failing to facilitate it.
Investing in a process platform that invites collaboration and makes process feedback both transparent and immediate will allow teams to engage with confidence, knowing that their voices have been heard. And make sure it’s accessible too. Process tools need to be easy to navigate and intuitive for business teams, so they can find the information they need quickly and offer innovative ideas simply.
Innovation at your scale
You probably don’t have Google’s scope for research and development, or 3M’s labs full of scientists, but what you do have is a workforce that is engaged in your business every day, and that knows it from the ground up.
Engage them in the innovation of your processes and watch what happens. Challenge the status quo, invite collaboration, and resource it in a way that incentivizes and motivates creative approaches to your existing processes.
When you provide an avenue for the people who know your processes best to revise and review them, you can be sure that - while you may not be making something new - you will be making everything better.