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.

Top 10 “Must-Do’s” for a Front Line Leader

This is a checklist that has served me well as the front line leader of many organizational turnarounds .

  1. Must be the Leader and set the example for the organization
  2. Must re-shape the work environment and the organizational culture
  3. Must formulate concrete strategy and long-term objectives
  4. Must develop and execute annual operating plans
  5. Must establish and enforce standards of performance
  6. Must make tough decisions and address the real issues faced by the organization
  7. Must allocate resources to achieve your strategy
  8. Must teach and develop direct reports
  9. Must build an organizational identity
  10. Must take responsibility to execute the agenda

Whether or not your turnaround succeeds ultimately depends on employees embracing new strategies and tactics. And that won’t happen without a non-stop employee engagement campaign that requires your complete commitment and involvement. So, starting on Day 1 you have to communicate how you are going to operate and what it will be like to work in this new organization. Constant communication is really inseparable from the act of leadership itself.

You must also remember that while you are establishing a strong foundation for the future,  you have to deliver some early wins to ensure that you are able to stick around for the long-term. Once you show a commitment to the organization and start breaking them from a habit of losing, your turnaround is well on its way to success.

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