Posts Tagged ‘processes’

To Pixar’s Ed Catmull, managing innovation means turning process control on its head

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Scott Berkun did a great job summarizing a talk Ed Catmull gave at a recent Economist conference. In Scott’s post were several transcriptions, one of which stopped me in my tracks:


The notion that you’re trying to control the process and prevent error screws things up. We all know the saying it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. And everyone knows that, but I think there is a corollary: if everyone is trying to prevent error, it screws things up. It’s better to fix problems than to prevent them.

W. Edwards Deming must be spinning in his grave. Catmull is saying precisely the opposite of what Deming, Juran and others began preaching in the years after World War II and which became ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s. The quality gurus taught us that detecting errors in manufactured products after they had occurred was expensive and wasteful. It was far better to identify problems as they occurred, “pulling the andon cord” if necessary to isolate and solve problems so that superior quality was baked into the product throughout the process, not created in a later inspection step.

This was a brilliant insight and helped revolutionize manufacturing, enabling just-in-time inventory, lean production and Six Sigma. But something else happened. Six-Sigma-like quailty processes were extended to processes like marketing, sales, product development, etc., processes in which variance was not necessarily a bug (in some cases it was a very valuable feature).

Catmull’s business is the polar opposite of the high-precision world of mass manufacturing. As he says in the interview, during the beginning of a film development process, “everything is broken.” You can’t measure conformity with specs because there are no specs. And variability is essential to the process. Only by putting lots and lots of wild ideas into the top of the development funnel do you have a chance to come out the other end with a work of art.

So his words are very helpful to think of when we are working with our business. Is this a conformity-based process? Is error bad? Or is it an artistic process, in which error is inevitable and, in fact, essential? When is it the situation of, “if everyone is trying to prevent error, it screws things up. It’s better to fix problems than to prevent them”?

The entire interview is here (the section I quoted is near the very end):

Related posts:
Processes as art and science
From the Mistake Bank: Make a mistake, get promoted

When innovating, seek out more, and more varied, ideas

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

innovation tournamentsI’ve been reading the book “Innovation Tournaments” by Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich of the Wharton School. The book sets out a methodology (the “tournament” of the title) for companies to generate and systematically winnow down innovation ideas to eliminate all but the most exceptional opportunities.

Two brief observations:

One, the authors suggest that almost any company’s innovation performance would be helped by increasing the number of ideas going into the top of the funnel. Early-stage evaluation (a la “Discovery-Driven Growth“) is cheap and fast, so the cost of, say, doubling the number of ideas reviewed isn’t significant when compared with an overall innovation budget.

[It was interesting to read today's post by tech venture capitalist Fred Wilson, in which he outlined his approach to finding new opportunities: (1) making public his strategies, ideas, and passions so that entrepreneurs know in advance what he's looking for, and (2) meeting with as many people as he can, every day. In short, a strategy to add lots of opportunities to the top of his funnel.]

Two, along with the sheer number of ideas, the variability of the ideas is important. High variability increases the possibility that a truly outstanding idea is found (given that truly outstanding ideas, like 7-footers with great athletic ability, are few and far between). In that event, increasing the number of ideas coming into the funnel increases the likelihood that a truly outstanding idea is looked at.

Ironically, methodologies like Six Sigma seek to limit the variability of processes. When (mis)applied to disciplines like innovation, they are very successful at impeding the success of the effort.

Related post:
On Discovery-Driven Growth
Processes as art and science

Thinking about processes as “science” and “art”

Monday, March 30th, 2009

One of my most gratifying but ultimately unsuccessful work assignments was to create an offering to open up an attractive new market segment. It was gratifying because many things went well–we developed a strong brand, quickly took up a position of authority and insight, and sold several important deals. It was unsuccessful mainly because we struggled to deliver the deals we’d won. The operations team, rather than celebrating these new wins, came to dread them. They wanted more certainty and definition–I countered that this was new stuff which we couldn’t pin down yet.

I was thinking about this experience while reading “When Should A Process Be Art, Not Science?” in the March 2009 Harvard Business Review. The authors, Joseph Hall and Eric Johnson of the Tuck School of Business, argue that while many processes benefit from a scientific, methodological approach (such as McDonald’s formula for frying burgers), other processes defy standardization and, in fact, are better off not being standardized. The authors call these “artistic” processes and cite such widely dispersed examples as the creation of a Steinway piano, auditing, and customer service. Complex sales, channel management, new business development, requirements gathering are other examples of artistic processes.

Most simply, Hall and Johnson call artistic processes those with high variability and, crucially, value of variability to customers [in this case also meaning internal customers]. In other words, a process that yields different results to a customer that wants consistency isn’t an artistic process, it’s a mess.

The “artistic process” argument parallels the definition of the Cynefin framework, defined in Kurtz & Snowden’s paper “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sensemaking in a Complex and Complicated World” and discussed in Snowden and Boone’s 2007 HBR article, “A Leader’s Framework For Decisionmaking.” The scientific processes defined by Hall and Johnson fit into Cynefin’s Known or Simple domain, while the artistic processes sit in the Complex domain.

Six Sigma adherents would claim that the segmentation of processes into scientific and artistic subsets merely excuses obstinate “artists” who don’t wish to constrain their freedom by submitting to any defined process (salespeople and sales managers are frequent targets of this accusation). Helpfully, Hall and Johnson discuss how they would propose measuring artistic processes–by harnessing customer feedback. They write:

An artistic process has to rely on external measures of success. Artists need continual exposure to customer feedback, which prevents them from constructing their own idiosyncratic notion of quality. Sometimes this feedback must come from a broad swath of customers. For example, medical professionals obviously have to work closely with all afflicted patients to diagnose and treat complex diseases – to obtain a complete picture of their symptoms and track their reactions to remedies. With other processes, including those used to product Steinway’s high-end pianos, feedback from a select group of customers can suffice.

Meaning: to check how you’re doing on non-mechanized processes, it is necessary to query the customers of the process and draw conclusions from their feedback about the process’ effectiveness. This means getting deeper feedback than we are accustomed to. For sales, it means not only tracking that a deal was won or lost, but why it was won or lost, and what could/should have been done differently, in the customers’ eyes. A lot of the work I’ve been doing in the past year has focused on this–measuring how a company is doing in telesales, or customer service, or account management by gathering customer stories and finding patterns in them revealing what customers value, or deep issues they have. [Now I have more help to describe the value of this work!]

Back to my new-business assignment. In looking back on that experience, one serious issue we had was the collision of artistic processes (marketing, sales, solution development) and scientific ones (operations, call center management, etc.). What seemed at the time to be misunderstanding or lack of teamwork may have been a poorly defined interface between the artistic processes of innovation and business development and the scientific ones required to deliver value to real customers.

Related posts:
Buyers, tell companies why they lost your business
Leaders need to manage complexity

(Photo by a hundred visions and revisions via Flickr Creative Commons)