From the Desk of Luke T. Morhauser
January 13, 2022 | Luke T. Morhauser
We have all heard the sayings, “Necessity Breeds Innovation” or “Crisis Breeds Innovation”. In recent times, there is plenty of necessity and crisis. Take, for instance, the issues facing many companies, including those in the manufacturing industry. At a recent conference, in conversations with clients, and in numerous articles, the same sentiment is provided – the supply chain and lack of suitable workers are affecting companies’ ability to meet customer demands. This definitely meets the criteria for innovation as there is a necessity to be able to produce on top of the crisis of supply chain and staffing issues.
When thinking of traditional innovation in companies, e.g., manufacturing companies, you may think to engineers and managers and even IT professionals. I would call this the top-down approach where people are hired and put in position to solve problems. I would also call this old and outdated.
To be able to continue to produce, compete, and lead, especially in times of crisis, companies need to look to an all-inclusive approach to innovation where the innovation is identified and utilized regardless of its genesis. This could be from the engineers, IT professionals, managers, but it could also stem from non-traditional innovators, such as line workers, facility managers, HR professionals, accounting, or basically anyone in the company.
Let’s start with the definition of innovation, which is “a new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in form of device or method.” Often, it is a person who sees a problem firsthand that is able to identify such an innovation. This could take many forms in any area of the company. A fabricator could be without key components, but they identify how the needed assembly can be made without the components. A worker who moves throughout the line and in all areas of the company could take keys from one area and suggest them to another where they have traditionally not been implemented. These all sound great, but what if key decision makers in the company are not willing to listen? How does this mindset change to not only listen, but to encourage ideas from all areas of a company? Still further, in a time of needed employee retention, how can this be leveraged so that ideas and employees stay, instead of feeling unwanted to the point they move, with their ideas, to the next employer?
The strategies included herein are but some examples and ideas to aid companies in not only making it through the current times, but to come out ahead and stronger than before to lead into the future. And while it may seem straightforward, implementing such changes can take time and patience, and requires buy-in from key players in order to succeed.
First and foremost, key personnel in leadership positions need to recognize that all employees, regardless of position, are vital. Promoting an all-inclusive environment of innovation is only able to work if the top believes and conveys a passion for new ideas. This may be the toughest part. It would be easy to fall into a one-time call for action or ideas, and then to do nothing. Doing so would defeat the process right away. Instead, I would suggest starting with a campaign of education and training. Communication is key. Show people what was done to get you where you are. This can inspire the next big ideas. Provide meaningful and purposeful methods for an employee to bring their ideas forward.
Once you have communicated that innovation from anywhere is important, identifying and communicating processes and procedures is important. This can be on company intranets, posters, handouts, employee handbooks, etc., but should show the process for communicating an innovative idea and how to initiate the disclosure process. Having a clear policy for innovation will make sure that innovation will not be missed. An easy start would be to create an internal email address that receives ideas, much like a suggestion box. Having one or more employees reviewing this on a consistent basis keeps the process moving.
Next, and this is very important, follow-up with each and every idea. Even if you decide to pass, it is important to show that an employee’s idea was heard and considered, and could result in a follow-up or next big idea. If ideas fall on deaf ears, even if just perceived, they will quickly dwindle.
Recognition is also a big factor. This does not need to be in the form of additional compensation, but recognizing in a public manner where an idea stemmed can create a ripple effect that turns into more great ideas. This is especially true when the ideas stem from non-traditional areas. Other forms of recognition can include, but should not be limited to, promotions, gifts, callouts at company meetings or in company publications, or the like. However, recognition can go a long way towards making an employee feel wanted and appreciated, which can help in retention. This can also be used as a pitch to potential employees. Once they hear the feedback from current employees, they may be enticed or more likely to apply and take part.
Once you have communicated that your company will be an all-inclusive, innovation generating institution, what next? You start getting ideas and figuring out what to do. This can start small. Have prototypes or test runs with the innovation and see how it works. Build from there with ideas that appear to be helpful. Scaling can be tough, but can provide numerous advantages.
Click here to read Part 2, where we discuss protection of your innovation.
Luke T. Mohrhauser is a Patent Attorney and Chair of the Mechanical and Electrical Practice Groups at McKee, Voorhees & Sease, PLC. For additional information please visit www.ipmvs.com or contact Luke directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.