Organizing for Routine Innovation

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When it comes to innovation, it’s sexy to think about how to make disruptive innovation happen, but it’s routine innovation — making
mainstream offerings better for existing users — that brings in the cash that
keeps the lights on.  Autoweek recently ran an article about what it feels like to develop new products at Honda.  I think it’s a valuable look inside a high-functioning organization designed to serve up innovation on a routine basis. 

Here are some of the key things that Honda does to increase the odds of making good cars, year-in, year-out:

  1. Know how to turn bubble-up ideas into tangible offerings:  the Ridgeline wasn’t something that popped out of a strategic planning initiative, but came from passionate people cobbling together a prototype which proved it could be a viable, mainstream offering so that Honda’s decision making process could then allocate the resources needed to get it to market.  Many organizations don’t know what to do with good ideas which don’t come out of their strategy group, even if they recognize them as good ideas.
  2. Make clean, efficient decisions:  fly to Japan with a solid business case which points to a proof-of-concept prototype.  Make a quick decision.  Spend little if any time ever debating or defending that decision again.  Focus scarce energy instead on making the Ridgeline or the Civic as good as it can be.
  3. Practice evidence-based management: when the Civic development team believed in a specific product feature (summer tires instead of all-weather tires), but knew that a senior manager did not value those tires, they were able to put together a case which was not only heard, but allowed to lead to a favorable outcome.  This is an example of management relying on evidence and not just opinions to guide decision making.  When management forces its opinions even though real marekt evidence exists to the contrary, the odds of creating good stuff really drop.
  4. Know by doing:  as the leader of the Ridgeline project, Gary Flint wasn’t isolated from reality by layers of managers.  He lived the details of the project to the point where, as he says in the article, he would even dust the office.  If you’re in there dusting, you’re probably also walking around, hearing and seeing the realities of the project.  And if you know those, you’ll know the critical things to focus on.  Honda has a long culture of knowing by doing, and of putting people in leadership positions who know — really know — the nuts and bolts of the business.
  5. Solve for happiness:  Honda has long believed in creating an environment where people who design, make and market things can be happy.  When it comes to innovating on a routine basis, I think the biggest thing an organization can do is set people up to be happy — routinely — as they go about their work.