Sunday, November 27, 2011

Innovation and Quality – Part 3

I have been pre-occupied recently with the concepts of innovation and quality.  Perhaps it has something to do with the recent media attention to Steve Jobs and his impact on manufacturing and design.  Or maybe it has to do with some things that are happening around CMPT and our Program Office course in Laboratory Quality Management.  Making progress through change. 

Today I saw an interview of James Dyson, another innovator perhaps not as well known as Mr. Jobs.  James Dyson is a British engineer with a interest in industrial design who has made among other things significant improvements to vacuum cleaners, room heaters, hand dryers.  Less flash than Apple, perhaps, but he has created a slew of brilliant product improvements, and has been knighted and amassed a ton of money in the process.  And he has established the James Dyson Foundation to support education and research at many levels.  

When asked about where he got his motivation for his innovations, he said it came from passionate anger when he found things that did not work properly.  Find something that doesn’t work and set out to fix it.  Innovation, according to this very successful innovator, starts off from the passion to make things better.

I think that is where the interface between innovation and quality resides: the passion to make things better.

As with many innovators, some of his commentary is pretty far out there, but still has resonance and connection.  Innovation is the product of failure.  In the process of creating the Dyson vacuum, he created some 5127 prototypes which meant that he missed his target 5126 times.  In addition he says that schools drive passion and the innovative spirit out of students.  Grades should be reversed with students being rewarded for error.  When there is no tolerance for error there is no opportunity for improvement and success.  

I kind of get what he is talking about.  All the way through the education process, even today we tend to reward the students who give back what we taught.  The "smart" students all to often figure out what we want to hear.  That being said, while I’m all for the notion of learning from trial and error in the sense of opportunities for improvement, it is a bit of a stretch to start there and go to rewarding for error.  
More on this education conundrum later. 

Many of the famous innovators of our time such as Jobs and Gates and Dyson had one thing in common with the famous innovators of yesterday including Edison, Ford, and Harland Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken) is that they were all inspired and succeeded but did it on their own initiative.  They saw flaws, or weaknesses, or absences in the present as inspiration to make the future better.  Their inspiration came from within and they carried out their risk-and-reward on their own terms.  I suspect that that sense of personal investment, drive, and vision are all important contributions to their success.   W. Edwards Deming who clearly belongs in this group deviates somewhat because for a substantial part of his career he was a government employee, not a position usually associated with taking initiative and risks, but perhaps he found  positions that gave him a sense of personal empowerment.

There are, I think, some careful lessons here for laboratory quality.  We work in a domain that requires a certain discipline and a can not tolerate being wrong 5126 times.  There are certain rules.  But these must be opportunities to learn and adapt.  

Within the framework described by standards such as ISO15189 or ISO9001 or CLIA there must be room for passion and design.  There are a number of ways that we can create and deliver quality that may on one level seem to be site specific, but have a certain generalisability.  Those may be the more positive aspects of Lean, or Six Sigma, or may be whole new directions.  There has to be the opportunity to stretch even if sometimes (most times?)  things may not pan out.  That is an essential part of risk and reward. 

And we have to be able to acknowledge that the standards framework itself can sometimes be wrong.  Improvement in standards comes from challenging the status quo.  When standards writers cannot or will not acknowledge that components of requirements have failed the tests of experience and time, they are lost opportunities.  Innovations can and must be allowed to flourish everywhere.

PS:  Our course in Laboratory Quality Management is filling up more quickly this year.  If there are some interested in the course for themselves or for people in their laboratories, it would be a good idea to get in touch a soon.

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