Dec 15, 2017

In the World of Innovations in Manufacturing – Part II

R Jayaraman

An innovation strategy is needed for encouraging, promoting and making innovations happen in a systematic way. For example, for large governmental programmes which seek to bring about massive change, for Make in India, for Skill India, MNREGA and so on; for corporates who want to stay relevant to their markets; R & D programmes for their very survival and educational institutions which seek to influence thoughts and actions of their stakeholders. The creation of a culture of innovation helps the cause of serial innovation. To successfully create and commercialise inventions, companies must commit themselves to the process of innovation. There are many such processes available. The three box solution by Dr Govindarajan, the 5 E process being proposed by the SPJIMR innovation movement (Enable, Experiment, Execute, Empower mavericks, Extend), the TGIF ( the Tata Group Innovations Forum) process for promoting corporate innovations, and, including innovations as a part of the continuous improvement process, which is what the current models of business excellence like Malcolm Baldrige or the EFQM would exemplify.

Creating an atmosphere is very important. The ambience to be creative is what makes innovations happen. Innovations can happen under different circumstances, the process cannot be boxed into compartments. However it can be facilitated. Funding, recognition and rewards, channelising energies through engagement and goal / target setting. For example, in the good old days, 3M used to include in its score cards, a target for sales revenue from “new products”, of, say, 25%. These new products were then created through a process of innovation which the company had installed in its operations.

Are some people more adept at innovation than others? This is like asking, do you need a chartered accountant to certify a balance sheet? Or an engineer to design the components of a new machine? Innovation involves skill, thinking, knowledge, an ability to toil despite temporary setbacks, a never-say-die spirit and a dogged but intelligent perseverance quality. Only this combination can lead to serious innovation.

The first outside manifestation of an innovation is the design, a sketch, a drawing. It is like the egg that a hen hatches. From this springs the life of the innovation. Just like the hen has to prevent the eagle from taking away its newly hatched eggs, the innovator must preserve the designs and then work on commercialising the output. Without the commercial part, the innovation is like a newly hatched egg which has been consumed for breakfast by the eagle. Without design an innovation remains in the mind of the innovator. It is design which gives the innovation a currency to manifest itself to being of use to society.

From design to commercialisation : value delivery through an innovation

The design is but the first step in making an innovation happen. The reverse is also true- without a design, there is no innovation. Engineering, using technology, is what gives shape to the innovation, making its production on a large scale possible, making it transferable to many locations, enabling the use of the innovation by society.

Engineering and productioneering are most important, to deliver on the promise. Take the example of Dell Direct. The promise was to deliver a laptop computer in four days, anywhere in the world. This was a great process and product innovation of its time and could revolutionise many concepts in the manufacture and delivery of a laptop. Engineering and technology elements which would make this succeed included a nimble supply chain, a flexible manufacturing line, a quality oriented production process, a supporting IT infrastructure, a speed oriented delivery chain. That Dell succeeded very well in its efforts has been recorded in business literature. Similar is the case with the new models introduced by several automobile manufacturers in India – Duster and Kwid by Renault, Ciaz and the Ertiga by Maruti, the Ace by Tata Motors, the XUV by Mahindra and so on. The creation of the bank accounts of several millions of marginal Indian families in a record time of one month is another example.

All these examples show that the mere idea or the design is not enough to make an innovation – it must be backed up by great engineering and technology for commercial exploitation, to close the loop. While there are many such examples in Indian industry, it must be said that the “jugaad culture” of innovation that is prevalent in India has inhibited the growth and application of engineering and technology to innovative ideas. Our inventors may be good at imagining things, thinking about innovations, designing them, but when it comes to production on a mass scale, there is a big bottleneck. And this is an area which needs to be addressed on priority.

One way to do it, and this has been the way for so many years, is to get into collaborations, joint ventures, partnerships, and so on, to commercially exploit the innovations that Indian inventors may come up with. The other way is for eminent Indian engineers to return to India from abroad, especially the advanced countries like the USA, Canada, Germany, or get into a working arrangement with the government / private companies to create the engineering / technology elements that can make an invention become an innovation.

A key missing piece, why the inventions do not make the grade as innovations, is the “ ambience”. Unlike thinking up designs for innovations, in which Indians are very good at, converting them to innovations is a weak area, because of cultural and other hamstrings. Traditionally, Indian businessmen have been great traders, buying and selling, but not known for their manufacturing prowess. In fact, Indian history, although replete with airplanes, atom bombs, other weapons of mass destruction, has no mention of how these things came about, were they manufactured indigenously or imported? Who designed them? And who built them?

In spite of these handicaps, Indian business has prospered and become a force to reckon with. Practices like TQM, business excellence, benchmarking, working with foreign companies under technical or management collaborations have all enabled the Indian industry to build on its inventive manpower. In fact, a key enabler of innovation is the participation of people in the movement. Without people, ideas are absent, and there is nothing to build on. While at the company level the corporate sector can play a leading role within its boundaries, competition will force companies to erect walls and barriers through IPR to protect and safeguard innovations, so that the originators of the innovations can get the maximum benefits. That is capitalism.

However, in a developing country like India, there is an important role for the legislative and the executive branches to perform. The government should act as a facilitator, provide facilities to an extent, but, perhaps, most importantly, remove obstacles (vigna hartha), such as, bureaucracy, documentation, approvals, tracking and reporting to excess. This is what is the “creating conditions to ease business conduct”, or, creating the ambience. While no one disagrees that there should be rules and regulations, it is good to simplify and streamline , many times by “just not having it”, so that the innovators are empowered and find the ambience favourable.

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