How to Build a Culture of Innovation in Your Plant

Innovation is what provides longevity to a manufacturing company—products do not last forever. And product cycles are shrinking, making it more important than ever to look for new ideas and new approaches wherever they can be found. Most companies realize that the best source of innovative ideas may well be right inside their existing organization. However, the traditional corporate environment might unintentionally discourage innovation. How can you institute a culture of innovation in your company?

Company culture can be incredibly difficult change. As with almost anything, real organizational change must come from the top. Company executives must be openly, visibly and, perhaps most importantly, repetitively supportive of new ideas and open communication. What’s more, openness toward new ideas must be embedded in an organization’s command structure and communication channels from top to bottom. Employees need to have a clear and safe path for sharing their ideas. It mostly comes down to a willingness to listen—and a commitment not to reject anything just because it doesn’t fit in with the current way of doing things.

Companies that have fully embraced lean manufacturing principles have already started to open the doors to innovation. Lean manufacturing’s emphasis on empowered work groups using the kaizen method to introduce a steady flow of small incremental improvements is exactly the kind of approach needed to create a culture of innovation.

The culture of innovation also includes a willingness to “embrace” failure. To use a well-known analogy, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Far too many organizations punish those involved in unsuccessful attempts at improvement (punishment can be as subtle as being passed over for projects or assignments), discouraging employees from even mentioning innovative ideas.

An innovative organization is open to even the most off-the-wall ideas because that is often where the true breakthroughs are born. Who would have thought, even ten or fifteen years ago, that your cell phone’s ability to make telephone calls would be one of its least important and least used features?

Does your company encourage every employee to share ideas for improvements, no matter how unusual? Is there a structure within your organization for investigating and working with new ideas? Are good ideas rewarded visibly and generously so as to encourage more participation in the innovation process?