When I sat down to write about sustaining innovations, the word that popped into my mind was “entropy.” While entropy is a scientific term related to the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity, it is also used to refer to a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder. Entropy is a very real thing in organizations. Practices are implemented and improvements deployed, yet over time, things seem to revert to the way they were always done. The results of change are short-lived and fleeting. It is almost worse to have put the effort and resources into making improvements that don’t last than it is to have never improved at all. Fortunately, entropy is not inevitable. It can be avoided with a few key measures.
Give Employees Ownership
In too many organizations, employees have been conditioned to wait around for someone at the top to come up with an improvement idea or innovation. When that is the case, it is not surprising that change is often embraced just long enough to get management off the subject. When employees are instead encouraged to be the source of innovation themselves, they are more likely to suggest improvements that will be meaningful to them and more likely to be invested in the results. That’s an outstanding way to make sure change is long-lasting.
Use Standard Work
Calling something “standard” may seem like the antithesis of “innovation,” but it is almost impossible to implement changes to processes if they are not uniformly performed in the first place. Standard work forms the baseline for how each process is executed, every time, by every person. When innovation occurs, usually following a PSDA or DMAIC cycle, the standard work is updated and a new consistent process is implemented. This allows for incremental improvement over time and ensures that progress toward a perfect process is uninterrupted.
It is much easier to get employees (and management) excited about innovation if the impact is measured, tracked over time, and broadcast to the organization. Some innovations will result in terrific economic and non-financial impacts and others will be less successful. That’s OK if you are measuring outcomes and using what you’ve learned to guide the next improvement that is implemented.
Align Innovation with Strategic Goals
Most of our readers would agree that every process could be improved and that the potential for innovation is everywhere. That means that setting the right priorities is essential. Choosing improvement projects that get the organization closer to the well-defined 3-5 year breakthrough objectives is a good way to ensure that they last. As Steve Jobs once said, “Focus is about saying no.” Sustainability is about picking the innovations that matter most to the strategy.
Use Technology to Support Innovation
Software that makes it easier to capture ideas for improvement and successfully deploy them also makes it more likely that the results will last over time. How? It provides a repository of knowledge related to every innovation so that people will remember how and why it was implemented. It also offers a single location for Standard Work, process diagrams, value stream maps, and other artifacts of positive change. Finally, it signals to the organization that innovation is a top priority of management and gives people the tools they need to actively participate.
Not every innovation will (or should) last forever, but if you follow these guiding directives, you can stack the deck in favor of improvements that have an impact over the long run.