By Paul Daigle

A process can increase the rate of ideas that deliver the required return on a company’s investment of money, time, and people. Can a process truly cultivate creative and useful ideas across a wider spectrum of employees?

Yes. Processes can help an organisation evolve more rapidly compared to the riskier approach of relying on a few key people to drive revolutionary change. Evolution through the engagement of various industry participants can lead to more predictable and lasting results. Take the meter industry as an example.

The metering industry is far from revolutionary, and change often takes years. More recently the pace has accelerated; technology has progressed more in the last 10 years than the previous 100 years. The popularity of the electromechanical meter has waned in favour of the more accurate electronic meter with no moving parts.

The first generation of electronic meters mimicked their electromechanical counterpart. The meter was merely a cash register to measure the power used and allow it to be billed for. As it evolves, the meter is taking on greater responsibility of measuring more parameters at the same cost as the previously simple meter. Challenges in meter design to also improve reliability are numerous. For example, the energy meter is connected to power lines and is exposed over long periods to temperature and environment changes and to extremes in electromagnetic interference. Additionally, some meters must withstand attempts to tamper with them.

The ideal energy meter with accurate, on-demand information at the right cost point has not yet appeared on the market. There is actually plenty of opportunity for improvement in cost, performance, and functionality. Attaining the ideal energy meter isn’t an easy task to achieve and it won’t be solved by a single person, company, or utility. It will take multiple product generations and coordination with many different parties. Continuous innovation is required.

How will this happen? Is there a proven process to follow?

Collaboration of people, each leveraging their unique styles is commonly used to attain innovative solutions. Each person independently refines his skill through a subconscious process based on trial and error. However, relying on the subconscious may not be the best way to disseminate knowledge and encourage new thought processes.

At the conscious level, we first recognise that innovation is a choice. It occurs when someone uses an invention, or uses existing tools in a new way. The choice is in directing focused effort towards improving, reducing, creating, or extending; for example improving quality or reducing energy consumption.

As an example of a process for innovation, I have chosen one similar to the process that Analog Devices has been following for more than 40 years. The five loosely described steps, conveniently written by Tom Kelly in The Art of Innovation, are:

  • Understand – understand the market, the customer, the technology, and perceived constraints. Constraints are challenged later but current perceptions are first understood
  • Observe – observe what real people like and dislike, and what confuses them. Look for latent needs not addressed Visualise – visualise concepts and the people who will use them. This is the stage of simulation
  • Evaluate and refine – do not get too attached to first prototypes. Find a way to iterate quickly and get feedback from customers. Every idea can be improved
  • Implement – implementing the new concept or product into commercialisation is usually the longest and most technically challenging stage.

Each of the five steps is equally important. Skip one and the risk of missing a market window escalates quickly. While a mere five step process seems deceptively simple, true innovation is difficult to attain and sustain. The significant challenge is that no single person or single company is an island unto themselves and all need to work together.


Operating ground for innovation

Innovation is a cyclical process within the environment of collaboration. Companies which abandon the customersupplier relationship in favour of partnerships or collaborative teams can be rewarded with the benefit of competitive advantage. Suppliers participate in technology selection, while customers gain resources that help them achieve their goals. Collaboration can balance the strengths of each party to compensate for weaknesses.

In the metering world, the optimal solution is attained when meter manufacturers’ design engineers collaborate with the integrated circuit designers to come up with products that integrate the desired features at the desired price. It is further attained when utilities or electricity distributors work with select meter manufacturers to define their specifications and develop their deployment plans. Collaboration ensures that the proper problem is being solved efficiently.

Take for example a system-on-chip design optimised for wide market appeal in a multi-function, single phase LCD meter. The multinational development team collaboration included working with third parties such as wafer fabrication technology experts to select the right balance in manufacturing cost, leakage current, and data retention in addition to LCD manufacturers, battery suppliers, meter manufacturers, and utilities.

There are two major reasons to collaborate:

  • Collaboration leads to optimal resource allocation. The appropriate problem to focus on is selected and clearly defined, and we can then collectively optimise the cost and performance trade-offs for the entire system
  • Collaboration improves communication and challenges the existing situation. Such a healthy, challenging environment can lead to personal growth and to innovation that leads to a highly valued product or service. Cross discipline collaboration energises team members to overcome the limitations of each member’s knowledge.

Effective multi-disciplinary collaboration can break dependence on previous experience to solve similar problems and stimulate creativity. The word to focus on here is “effective”. Effectiveness is the ability to reach optimal solutions to challenging problems in a timely manner.

Elements for sustaining effective decision making and action include:

  • Understanding the general challenges that each member faces
  • Recognising each member’s individual expertise
  • Orienting the team on a specific goal
  • Making decisions and acting in a way that reflects trust of each member.

If there is difficulty in effective decision making then ingenuity, creativity, and timeliness will be suppressed. It can be helpful to be aware of some of the impediments to effective collaboration. Barriers include:

  • Reluctance: By recognising the reluctance to share with others, we can actively focus on relationship building before launching a major collaborative effort
  • Proximity: Reaching decisions can be delayed in large organisations when people have difficulty finding others who have already solved their problem. Efficient dissemination of knowledge can help prevent reinventing the wheel
  • Guarding: People sometimes guard their knowledge because they see selfish accumulation as a source of power. This can be overcome by clarifying mutual interest and gaining commitment for success
  • Not invented here: Avoiding previous research or knowledge that was not originally developed by the individual, group, or institution. Ego is the root of this problem and can be mitigated in a similar fashion to guarding.

A discussion about innovation would be incomplete without mentioning mistakes. If true innovation is taking place, there will always be risks and failures. Expect and accept little setbacks as a way to ‘fall forward’ into a new perspective or idea. Discard failures as learning experiences and replace them with rapid corrective action.

Failures can really hurt the ego. That is why it is important to swallow pride and to give it another chance as soon as possible. For example, after years of development, a metering chip failed to meet acceptance by most meter manufacturers and also resulted in poor return on investment. However failures in its definition were quickly acknowledged and focus was put on defining a derivative product that was most suitable for China, which led to a successful second generation product, the ADE7755.

The cyclical nature of innovation pays off when results are produced. The result of this iterative process is both success and vision.

First, success is measured by the quality and acceptance of a solution. A product, service or activity can be delivered with high technical quality but if the acceptance is small, the success will be too limited to make it worthwhile. Acceptance is most often increased by involving customers in the specification of the targets and assigning end-user tests to them.

The second result of innovation is vision. Vision of future improvements and enhancements are ripe while our minds haven’t yet disengaged from a project. Before taking a break or moving on to a new task, capture what has been learned and ideas about the future to prevent starting from a complete blank sheet on the next project.

Collaboration is the operating ground for continuous innovation. Following a five-step innovation process requires emphasis on strategy and vision instead of control. Such a process requires goals and assumes that people will adopt whatever behaviours and take whatever actions are necessary to arrive at those goals despite the constantly changing conditions in which we all operate. Efficient decision making at every step involves empowerment of individuals and teams through collaboration.

Exercising this innovation process while focused on a customer need will lead to innovation that benefits all participants. Following an innovation process is a repeatable way to disseminate knowledge and harness creative ideas from many people in an organisation to yield financially rewarding results.