How can process-driven organisations be more creative?

Often, companies focus so much on processes that they fail to innovate and keep up with the changing world

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Companies such as Apple and Google are known for their innovativeness and creativity in the corporate and tech world. Google’s innovative ideas such as language translation feature, voice-search mechanism and direction and traffic feature in Google maps are just some of the examples of how the Company keeps bringing in better and useful upgrades to its digital products.

Apple gave a jolt to the computer hardware market with its Mac. It also revolutionised the smartphone industry with its I-phone. Such companies keep investing in innovation and always find new problems to solve.

Often, however, in large process-driven organisations, such investment in creativity and innovation gets lost when too much emphasis is given on the ‘process’ itself.

When we talk about process-driven organisations, the manufacturing sector is a perfect example, where companies are all about process and hierarchy. Human resource leaders that HRKatha spoke to for this article also agree that this is a very common issue faced not just by manufacturing companies, but by any large organisation with complicated management designs.

“Too much emphasise on processes do lead to less creativity and innovation in companies,” says Praveen Purohit, deputy CHRO, Vedanta Resources.

“Driving creativity and innovation depends on the kind of leadership at the top. They need to build competencies that give them a competitive advantage”

Emmanuel David, HR leader

A classic example, which famous business authors and writers still refer to is that of 3M. The Company is known for its industrial and consumer products and offerings ranging from abrasives and adhesive tape to consumer-electronics components and building materials. Apart from the wide range of products it manufactures, the Company is also known for its innovations and inventions.

Arthur Fry, who was an employee at 3M was attending one of the technical forums where Spencer Silver, another employee and a scientist was sharing his experience about how he wanted to create a strong adhesive which can be used for aviation components. Instead, Silver ended up creating a weaker adhesive, which was termed as a ‘solution without a problem’.

Fry, who was a choir singer at his church, had the habit of losing his bookmark in his hymnbook. In Silver’s weak adhesive, Fry found two features which he found to be rather useful for his bookmark. The note was reusable, and it peeled away without leaving any residue. Fry received funding to develop a product from Silver’s accidental invention. Thus was born the Post-it note!

Similarly, 3M is also known for giving the world what is known as the Scotch Tape, invented by Richard Drew. How did 3M create that innovative culture and mindset in its employees? The Company had dedicated forums, and the engineers went out into the field to meet consumers and understand their problems, which helped them generate newer ideas.

But things changed during the reign of James McNerney, who became the CEO and chairman of 3M in 2000. McNerney was a prodigy of Jack Welch the former CEO of GE and used his radical ways to improve the efficiency of the company by focusing on improving the processes. He brought in the Six Sigma practices at 3M which predominantly emphasised on improving the processes such that all errors and defects were reduced. Though with this move, the business grew and McNerney brought discipline to an organisation which had become unwieldy, erratic and sluggish.

“Ensuring a culture of empowering employees can lead to an innovative mindset”

Jacob Jacob, group CHRO, Malabar Group

McNerney stayed till 2005, after which he moved to Boeing as CEO. He gave some good things to 3M, but many employees at the Company have said that innovation took a backseat during his tenure. After McNerney, George William Buckley took the reins as CEO and realised that the innovative mojo at 3M was missing. It was a while since 3M had come up with its multilayer optical films that coated liquid-crystal display screens. So, Buckley focussed on restoring the innovation mindset. He discontinued some practices followed during McNerney’s rule and retained what was useful out of the six sigma programme.

All previous platforms created for brainstorming, and ideas such as the Technical Forum and Technical Council became super active at 3M yet again.

“First one has to give employees a platform where they can brainstorm about new ideas,” says Purohit. He shares that Vedanta has also created such a platform known as the Innovation Café, a centre where all young employees and senior staff members discuss and come up with new ideas.

As per Purohit, the need for an innovation centre was felt about five to six years ago and now more emphasis is being given to it. Purohit proudly mentions about the great ideas which have come up with this initiative. One is in the area of aluminium production, which is now being produced in different customisable sizes as per the needs of the clients and customers.

Secondly, Purohit mentions the incentivisation of the efforts of employees, who come up with these ideas. “Incentivising such efforts is another step, which the company will need to take to encourage more people to come up with ideas. People are actually brimming with ideas, they just need that push to open up,” observes Purohit.

“Incentivising is another step, which the company will need to take to encourage more people to come up with ideas. People are actually brimming with ideas, they just need that push to open up”

Praveen Purohit, deputy CHRO, Vedanta Resources

Emmanuel David, HR leader, says that innovation flows from the top. It is the leadership which encourages employees to be more innovative. “Driving creativity and innovation depends on the kind of leadership at the top. They need to build competencies that give them a competitive advantage,” says David.

At 3M, the senior management was quite supportive of their engineers. If someone wanted to explore an idea or invention, the Company came forward and funded it.

David shares one instance when he was with Gujarat Gas as the director – HR. The Company had various social recognition platforms for employees who came up with ideas. David explains that earlier the gas was only used to generate electricity, but people came up with innovative burners, so that gas could be sold for different purposes. And the Company started catering to fulfilling the needs of other industries.

Jacob Jacob, group CHRO, Malabar Group, emphasises on empowering the employees to take decisions and giving them the freedom to operate. 3M also has a 15 per cent rule, where every R&D employee spends 15 per cent of his/her time working on independent projects. “Ensuring a culture of empowering employees can lead to an innovative mindset,” says Jacob.

In a competitive market, innovation is the key to staying relevant. Brands such as Nokia and Kodak lost their popularity after a point because they could not change and innovate to keep up with the changing world. “Innovation is very important today. Without innovation one will cease to exist in this competitive world,” asserts Purohit.

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