Innovation and “Stealing Shamelessly”

Creating an innovative culture starts with creating an open culture. An open culture is accepting of ideas regardless of their source – other companies, industries, people – and is willing to implement what they have learned to improve their own performance. A great illustration of this concept from the greatest innovator of our time, Steve Jobs . . . . he obviously had no issue with learning from the best of the best:

“Picasso had a saying – ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ – and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas”. Steve Jobs

What do Copiers and Dog Food have in Common?

Once, when I was involved in a manufacturing operation for office equipment, I took my entire leadership team on a benchmarking trip to Ralston Purina. At the time, a lot of people questioned whether dog food had anything to do with components for copiers. But what we learned from Ralston Purina helped us to dramatically improve our whole approach to inventory management.

The idea came while walking through our local Wegmans grocery store. I was amazed to see from the “produced on” date that Purina could produce “Dog Chow“, ship it, and have it on a shelf in less than five days.  My factory was also producing a consumable for copiers, yet we had over 50 days of finished goods in our supply chain. I just had to see how they did it and try it in our shop. We brought many ideas back to our operation that ultimately helped us to become more responsive to changes in customer demand. And those improvements helped us to decrease our finished goods inventory by nearly 40%!

Other Benchmarking Examples

Whether you call it benchmarking or stealing shamelessly, the basic idea is to encourage your organization to learn from the best. Here are few more examples:

  • Henry Ford studied slaughterhouses in Chicago to get ideas that would help him develop the most efficient assembly line operations in the automotive industry.
  • A large retail bank learned how to make customer service a delightful experience by benchmarking Walt Disney Co.
  • Some historians say that Julius Caesar benchmarked the military strategies and tactics of other armies.
  • Steve Jobs’ passion for nicely designed products for the mass market was instilled in him by the builder of his childhood home – “His houses were smart and cheap and good. They brought clean design and simple taste to lower-income people”.

No such thing as a perfect match

The literature on benchmarking is full of similar success stories. But to get the most out of your efforts, you have to stop looking for the perfect match to your industry. The goal is to find ideas and practices that you can use right away to improve your performance. And it doesn’t matter where you find them.

Once a company starts rewarding people for “stealing shamelessly” (and I like to add – with proper credit), they have taken the first step in creating an innovative culture.

Innovation, Benchmarking & the 5 Stages of Grieving

92% of executives surveyed as part of the “GE Global Innovation Barometer 2012” agreed that innovation is the main lever to create a more competitive economy.

Steven Johnson identifies 7 key principles that are a catalyst for innovation in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From“, 2 of which I’ve noted below:

  • seizing existing components or ideas and repurposing them for a completely different use
  • adapting many layers of existing knowledge, components, delivery mechanisms that in themselves may not be unique; but which can be recombined or leveraged into something new that is unique or novel.

So clearly, open-minded companies  have a need and can benefit from great practices developed by organizations of any size . . . in any industry. So why don’t they?

First of all, most people believe their organization is so unique that it can’t be compared to any other. Also, with the inevitable benchmark comparisons, “the successes and failures of an organization are there for all to see” as noted by Peter Drucker. And who wants to embrace something that could cast your organization in a bad light?

At the same time, I’ve seen how people do learn to use benchmarking to find “Good Ideas”, make big improvements, and set new standards for performance after they go through a five-stage process of adjustment that’s virtually identical to the steps in the grieving process. (My wife, who’s a social worker, pointed out that intriguing comparison to me.)

How doubters become “do-ers”

  1. The first stage is Denial. You just found out that another company does something better than you do. So the natural inclination is to deny the basis for the comparison. “The findings don’t apply to us, because we’re a very different organization.”
  2. Stage two is Anger. “This ridiculous and completely unwarranted comparison doesn’t make any sense because the other guys are” (choose one): Bigger, Younger, Serving very different customers, Smaller, older, fill in the blank _______”
  3. After the anger wears off, it’s time for the Bargaining Stage. This is when people point out all the reasons why it’s impossible for their organization to live up to the benchmark. “Sure they do it in two days. But because we’re bigger it’s only reasonable to expect us to handle the same task in five days.” In other words, inflation hits the benchmark during this lowering-the-bar stage.
  4. What happens next? Depression. This is the time for hand-wringing, head shaking and highly visible chair-slumping. “Boy, they really are that good. And we’re not! We might as well run up the white flag and surrender, because we’ll never measure up.”
  5. Now for the good news: There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. After all of these understandable human reactions have run their course, people are finally ready to move to the Final Stage: Acceptance. “OK. There’s a Grand Canyon-sized gap between our organization and the benchmark. So let’s start building a bridge!”

This is the time when people get fired up to tackle the problem and beat the benchmark. And that’s when innovations occur that, in retrospect, are brilliant in their obviousness and simplicity.

I’ve seen people go through these five stages time after time. But I’ve also learned something else: If you understand the stages and recognize where you stand in the process, you can move through the whole thing much faster. And that will accelerate the innovation cycle and improve the performance of the entire organization.

When you create a culture that is open to new ideas, from anywhere, and shares them freely, you can add a really important stage after Stage Five – let’s call it “Stage 6: Getting Results.”

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