Innovation and the Quality Process


Thinking of new ideas and putting those ideas to practical economic use can be more of an art than a science.  At times innovation sends a signal that is in opposition to quality.  If we are constantly trying to solve problems and find solutions through effective investigation of failures, do we ever consider that the best solution is to ignore the past and invent the future?  Those of us who have a wider view of what innovation should deliver seek entirely new approaches verses conventional problem-solving for cause.  It’s not that analytical thinking is unnecessary but on occasion, a new solution unrelated to cause removal is warranted.

What is Innovation and how is it Different from Creativity?

For most, creativity is coming up with a good idea.  Innovation is the process by which you conceive novel ideas and put them into practice.  Obviously creativity is of little value if you can’t put a new idea into practice.

There are many reasons we don’t have more creative ideas.  One of the primary ones is that we are so busy investigating for causes to problems that we fail to look for entirely new options to solve the problem.  This of course strikes of foul for some who have spent countless hours in a quality process dedicated to investigation.  The truth is that rooted within innovative thinking is a maverick mentality that “I don’t care what the cause to this problem is... I am going to invent an entirely new way to handle the situation”.

Other reasons for lack of innovation include lack of confidence, fear of failure, and mental thinking ruts.  All of these can be overcome if your passion and desire to invent solutions is strong enough.

A closer look at the science of innovation can bring needed solutions when investigation fails and or when new ideas are needed to solve a problem or drive a new opportunity forward.

Years ago most people thought that innovation was more an art than a science.  Today we know it is more the opposite.  The most successful innovators follow a process that has both analytical and innovative components.

The process begins with a need to improve something that is meaningful to you and your organization’s success.  Identifying opportunities is the first step to getting started.
 Innovation Process
Diagram courtesy of PathWise INC

You can identify opportunities from several areas that are naturally occurring every day.  A few include major changes, threats, or successes that are occurring around you.  Think about those you associate with (network) and listen to what is important to them.  Discuss, as appropriate, problems with peers, customers, and neighbors.  Ask questions such as “How can I utilize the success of this situation in my process/department/job?”  A good network can provide a wealth of new ideas if you take the time to open the discussion and then listen.  One of my favorites is to read the newspaper and occasionally stop and think about how what I am reading could help me solve a problem or exploit an opportunity at work.

Good product developers know that once an opportunity has been identified, a good process should be followed, beginning with a clear statement of intent.  This is somewhat similar to a problem statement but instead of clarifying what exactly went wrong you are articulating what you want to go right.  PathWise, a consulting and education company, developed several good questions to go with this process.  A good question to initially ask while constructing an innovation statement is “How best to…”  For example, “How best to improve the labeling process at the point of manufacture in our remote site in Madagascar.”  This will get you focused on driving your thinking in the best direction to look for new solutions.  This is very different than asking, for example, “What is causing the labels to detach in the box during shipping from Madagascar site?”  While finding the cause to the problem of detached labels may be key, it does not necessarily focus on new methods or breakthrough thinking.

Armed with a statement for innovation, most would jump to generation of new ideas to solve the situation.  This can be a mistake.  Good innovators understand that establishing design criteria up front while your thinking is clear and not driven by adjustment to fit a pet solution is often what makes for the easiest to implement and most useful solutions.  Before generating ideas, you could ask a few key questions such as:

1. Whatever we do should…

2. What are the requirements…

3. Who will this innovation impact…

4. What is the impact of a solution in this area…

After documenting the design criteria, it is best to set it aside before coming up with new ideas.  You don’t want to be swayed by your criteria.  You should, however, come back later and review your solutions against these criteria and make needed adjustments so that the solution satisfies the criteria.  This will keep you honest in your focus to solve or improve the situation without falling in love with a favorite solution and becoming biased in the outcome.

The next step is to generate ideas.  Many methods exist for doing this.  Simple brainstorming is often effective.  Bringing a team together to work off of each other can be helpful.  More creative techniques such as using an analogy can also provide input that likely could not be thought of with simple brainstorming.

An example of using an analogy would be as follows.  Say your innovation statement is to improve sales of an older well-established product.  Set up your analogy by first thinking of a similar situation…similar in process but very different is content from your company product goal.  Place the analogy statement on a flipchart and generate many ideas for that situation.  After capturing those ideas, place a new flipchart page next to those analogy ideas and force-fit the core thought to your improving sale of the established product statement.  Your mind will come up with numerous new ideas that you will not have been able to think of if just brainstorming.  See below:

Analogy Example:

Improve Production of an Apple Orchard

Improve Sales of an Established Product
1.  Prune deadwood 1.  Eliminate unproductive outlets
2.  Eliminate pests 2. Reposition with competition
3.  Cross-pollinate trees 3.  Form new alliances
4.  Fertilize 4.  Design new incentives
There are many good techniques to use for generating new ideas.  A favorite book of mine is “Thinkertoys” by Michael Micholdo (Ten Speed Press).  Remember to have fun and that in baseball you have to swing a lot of times to hit a few homeruns.  Innovation is the same.

Once you have a litany of ideas, your work really begins when you convert the best of them into a workable solution.  This is typically where people give up and lose steam.  One reason this happens is that people don’t know what to do with all of these ideas and how to combine and develop them into workable solutions that can be implemented.  I have used a mind-mapping technique to help categorize ideas effectively.  It places ideas into natural categories that you sift down from the mass data.

Ask questions such as “How can I take this and combine key thoughts into a solution?”

After you feel that your team has put together a good solution, reintroduce the design criteria you established earlier in the Innovation process.  Refine your ideas by seeing how well the new solution measures up to the design criteria.  I like to look at the criteria and ask first “are any of these criteria absolutely mandatory?”  In other words, will a certain criteria be critical to the new solution.  If it is, you must adjust your solution to meet that criterion.  If you can’t make an adjustment, you will have significant problems and risks if you try to implement that solution.  Be prepared for them to occur.

Other design criteria may be more desirable or hoped-for items that are important but not critical.  These should also be examined also when refining your solution but you have more wiggle room to make adjustments as they likely will not “make or break” the new solution.

As you make these adjustments and refine your solution into a workable answer, it now needs group approval or buy-in.  Getting buy-in for a change may not be as easy as you think.  You may feel like you have this great new solution that will solve a key problem or bring an opportunity to fruition but often management and other employees are resistant to change because it upsets the way things have been done and they have become comfortable with the old process.

Selling your new solution can be just as important as constructing it.  Consider who will have to accept the new idea, who will fund it, and whether you are the best person to present your solution.  You may want to consult with someone who is influential and understands how to make presentations.  But absolutely consider who will be making the decision to accept the solution and prepare an effective proposal.  Do not go forward on a significant new solution requiring budget and organizational changes without having considered the selling process.


Having an innovative thinking process to supplement a good investigation process can bring both incremental improvements and the occasional breakthrough improvement to your organization.  There are many talented facilitators who can aide your understanding of how to innovate. Like a good investigation process, if you follow the steps and are determined to find a solution, you should arrive with a good result.  Innovation is also a process.  It has key steps that when followed, will take you to a new solution nearly every time.

While some will find the innovation process challenging because of the creativity and sometimes lack of rationality, it is a wonderful tool to have in your quality toolbox.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of his or her employer, GxP Lifeline, its editor or MasterControl Inc.
Ken Peterson is an author of many articles on Innovation.  He has helped many organizations come up new solutions that are now bringing enhanced and breakthrough results.  A few organizations include Abbott Laboratories, Kodak, Pfizer, and IBM. He may be reached at