Innovation or Lean? A recent article published on the Knowledge@Wharton website suggested that the philosophy of Lean could exist along with Innovation. After reading the article I have two questions:

  1. Why would you want them to?
  2. Why put Innovation into a box (like Lean or BPR) when an Innovation system has the ability to change and respond to its surroundings?

The article states “Lean has come to mean an integrated, end-to-end process viewpoint that combines the concepts of waste elimination, just-in time inventory management, built-in quality, and worker involvement — supported by a cultural focus on problem solving. Can such practical principles be applied to innovation, or would lean’s structure and discipline snuff out the creative spark that underlies the birth and development of great ideas? Can lean co-exist with innovation?”

The article suggests that Lean brings structure and predictability to Innovation without sufficiently defining Innovation. Innovation requires a framework within which we generate ideas, experiment and develop new products, services and processes. Such frameworks exist and also provide ways of measuring and monitoring Innovation. In that sense we have structure and predictability within Innovation so we do not need Lean also. The very definition of Lean also implies that the flexibility and adaptability required to change, either in times of crisis or to seize opportunities, may have been engineered out of an organisation.

Those who fully embrace Innovation will understand that Innovation systems evolve and fully embrace such aspects as new ideas of collaborative working, new leadership and organisational models, empowerment and customer engagement. These attributes are not specific to Innovation systems nor are they specific characteristics of Lean.

An Innovation system can exhibit Lean characteristics if necessary, but a Lean system cannot be truly Innovative since there is always be an intellectual overhead in an Innovation system and so the Lean system will become ‘non Lean’.

Another contentious topic is that of separating idea from development. It is true that the mix of people that are required during the many phases of Innovation may change, but once more this is a characteristic of Innovation, that things change. In fact, idea and development must be connected. What if the technology to implement an idea does not exist and ideas must be generated in order to put an idea into production? Imagine the first time Silicon wafers were used to produce chips in large numbers. I cannot imagine that those who developed the chips were completely separated from those who developed production processes.

So if Innovation is an end to end process which provides a framework, is adaptable to changing conditions and which can be measured, why would we wish to consider Lean? One possible (and perhaps cynical) answer is that those who promote Lean would lose a possible source of revenue or that they simply do not understand Innovation – after all, it does have ambiguity built in!

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