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Manufacturing Innovation: Moving Fear Forward

The month of October was a tough month for me.  I found myself being moved by the passing of two innovators, Steve Jobs and Al Davis, owner of my beloved football team the Oakland Raiders.   Although I’ve never meet Steve Jobs or Al Davis, I found myself reflecting on why these two individuals had such a profound impact on my life and the world.  I began to reflect on the parallels of both men’s journey, and came to the conclusion that what made these individuals so unique was FEAR.  Not fear itself, but how they both moved FEAR FORWARD in their journey toward being successful Innovators and agents of change.

Courage is the mother of Innovation, but ultimately it’s birthed out of fear.  The fear of failure, of going against the grain of “common” thought, challenging the status quo, pursing with passion one’s vision even if it meant being ostracized is a character trait of all great leaders and agents of change.  So what does this have to do with manufacturing?

Fear: The True Path to Innovation

Manufacturing thought leaders are not alone in their struggle to conquer the inertia of fear and move down a path of true innovation.  Steve Jobs had to conquer and change the mindset of the entire music industry, and directly deal with the humility of being ousted from the company he founded.  Al Davis became an innovator not only on the field, but his greatest impact occurred off the field.  He challenged the status quo and hired the first Hispanic football coach, and promoted the first female football executive in the sport.    Interestingly, both men conquered their fear by having a resolve and passion for achieving something greater than PROFIT.   Steve Jobs was quoted, “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products,” Jobs told Isaacson. “[T]he products, not the profits, were the motivation.”   Producing the best organization and football team that exemplified a “Commitment to Excellence” on and off the field drove Al Davis.  Hiring minority and women initially was not good for the bottom line, but he was able to innovate and radically change the landscape of the sport in spite of his fears.

The Great Opportunity

The manufacturing industry has a great opportunity and need for innovative and disruptive change within the discipline.   Unfortunately, manufacturing in large part has experienced only “incremental” change due to the complexity of processes, stringent “copy exact” product standards, coupled with the large capital and operational investment associated with making radical change in the industry challenging.  The fear of taking a radical approach to changing how we manufacture and the cost associated with the potential failure of those changes is terrifying and produces a paralyzing fear.  Moving that fear forward toward innovation is not trivial.

The other challenge is that innovating the back end of the process is never sexy.  Its like a lineman who blocks, the quarterback and running back always gets the glory.  It seem like no one cares about how you make it, the glory always goes to the end product.  “WoW!!! This new iPhone is cool!!!”  BUT If you ask, “Hey you want to hear about my configurable manufacturing facility and how I can change the layout of my plant in 47 minutes to produce 63 different widgets resulting in billions of  dollars in yearly operational and capital expense savings, and the reduction of tons of carbon footprint!?!?!?!?”  The answer is usually, “ NO not really”

Just imagine the benefits if companies viewed manufacturing innovation as a true differentiator.  The consequence would be extreme benefits to the bottom line and the environment.

Does the industry have the vision, courage, and passion to move the fear boulder down the path to Innovation Nirvana?   The economy and environment is counting on it.

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