Stop Doing That: non-value added activities!

by Edward Boze

Editor’s note: In this series, we share personal stories from business leaders in a new book by Luis Solis; Innovation Alchemists: what every CEO needs to know to hire the right Chief Innovation Officer

Obtain a quick win for your idea management campaign by targeting a specific objective: eliminating non-value added activities.

You’ve been tasked with setting up an idea management program that encourages all employees in your company to contribute their ideas and collaborate on the ideas of others via an idea management system/collaborative workspace. Idea submitters will solicit collaboration from other employees with requisite expertise.  Ideas will be selected to move forward under executive sponsors. Risk taking is expected, and failure will be accepted in the pursuit of novel, far-reaching ideas that could disrupt the marketplace.

But, even though the failure of individual ideas won’t be penalized, the overall program needs to succeed. You need to produce a win to demonstrate the program’s viability and value. What’s the best way to do that? From my experience, stepping into the newly created position of Vice President of Innovation, I was tasked with setting up an idea management program for my division. The Commercial Service Group became the first division to launch an innovation program in what would become Xerox Business Services. Although our initial budget exceeded several hundred thousand dollars, soon after launch, we were instructed to find savings in the next twelve months to pay for the program.

Avoid an “Open Suggestion Box” Approach

I found that the best way to achieve a good result in such a short time was to design a focused idea campaign. That is, do not use your idea management system as an open suggestion box. Such a shotgun approach, particularly with a new innovation program, shows poor results for several reasons. First, in lacking a defined focus for ideas, you fail to define some of the criteria to be used in approving an idea. If, for example, your company is extremely challenged in reducing expenses, a proposal requiring a significant investment of capital may not be appropriate at the time. Second, an undefined idea campaign makes it difficult to find collaborators and sponsors for the great variety of ideas submitted. Similarly, it makes it difficult for communities to form around themes because your ideas are too diffuse at a time when your innovation community is very small. Finally, your leaders already have a sense of problems to be solved and areas of opportunity to be addressed. By not focusing on them, you reduce your chances of finding an executive sponsor.

Instead, Focus the Idea Campaign on One Topic

A campaign I found well suited for a quick win was one that we called, “Stop Doing That.” It focused on non-value added activities (NVAAs). A non-value added activity is one that does not contribute to something the client will value or pay for. As such, the hope is that we can simply eliminate the NVAA or “Stop Doing That” thereby realizing near term gain with minimal investment.

Create Buzz for the Idea Campaign

The first step of the campaign was effective communication. I personally like to create some buzz embedding YouTube videos in my material. That gets attention and gets people talking about the campaign.

Second, your campaign communications need to provide some classes of non-value added activities to be considered. Rather than focusing on normal Lean Six Sigma opportunities related to waste (overproduction, inspection, transportation, movement, etc.), instead focus on ideas that can be quickly realized. For example, I focused on the following seven areas to find waste.

7 Areas Where to Find and Eliminate Waste:

1. Stop producing output for which there is no downstream consumer. I find the most fruitful area of opportunity is the elimination of tasks which have become obsolete.

2. Stop producing output faster than it can be consumed. Creating output faster than it can be consumed results in inventory which has associated costs. Attending to that inventory can also diminish productivity downstream. I am reminded of the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel are wrapping chocolates on a candy production line. The supervisor keeps turning up the speed of the conveyor as Lucy and Ethel struggle to keep up by stuffing the chocolates their clothes and mouths.  Funny, but wasteful.

3. Stop performing tasks that are duplicative of other tasks. It is likely that tasks are nearly duplicative, not entirely duplicated. Therefore, in reality, you will probably have to modify one task before you stop doing the other one.

4, Stop producing output that is of no value because it is not timely. I find this frequently to be the case in reports that are intended for monitoring. If the report can be generated in real time, as is the case in many systems with a dashboard, you might find that the official report is not being used.

5. Stop tweaking product. Here I refer to when an employee slightly tweaks the output of a prior task before using it. Instead, modify the specification of the output for the prior step to eliminate the tweaking step.

6. Stop requiring excessive approvals. Consider requiring approval on an exception basis. For example, if you are ordering materials at the same level every week, only require approval for the order when it exceeds a threshold.

7. Stop performing excessive inspections. At some point early in the creation of the process, quality levels were probably such that more frequent inspections were required. Over time, however, quality improved through learning and mitigation strategies such as robustness of design. Therefore, it may now be possible to reduce the frequency of inspection, particularly when there is little chance of detecting a defect or if the defect will have little adverse impact.

Hopefully you’re now jazzed and excited. You know of many instances of NVAAs, and you’re sure there are others that can quickly be identified. However, I caution you against excessive optimism. Idea submitters should be encouraged to solicit input from others particularly, those downstream in the process and managers should sign off before anyone is allowed to “Stop Doing That.” Here, expect pushback from those who will counter with, “There must be a reason. We’ve always done it this way.” For example, in the case of output without a consumer, you will be trying to prove a negative: that there is no one using the output.

These obstacles are not to be under-estimated. However, the advantage of the “Stop Doing That” campaign is that you can more easily conduct an experiment. For example, rather than canceling a task and its associated output, you might tag the output with instructions that the innovator be contacted when the output is used, thereby proving or disproving its value without risk.

To those that might be discouraged by naysayers, remember that innovation is difficult because the fear of loss is often greater than the enticement of gain. An innovation program requires those with greater clout in the organization to give managers and innovators cover to be innovative, which is why an innovation program is only successful if it has backing at the highest levels. Essentially, those with clout are being asked to communicate the philosophy that they will celebrate failure as well as success; just one of the values that should become an embedded truth once the sponsor of the innovation program has the political capital they need to hold true.

Edward Boze is President and Founder at CrowdPowered. Edward’s LinkedIn profile here.

image credit: