An Elastic Approach to Production and R&D: Back to the Roots

Innovation at the Production Line

May 7, 2018  | by Wolf Ruzicka

 

Innovation is a critical part of business. While prioritizing production in general makes sense, the best approaches make innovation a component of the whole production process.

The question is what’s the best way to do so? Production teams experience headaches and roadblocks daily. They know where innovation is needed. With the right team and environment, they will come up with solutions to address these real-life problems – no one is better positioned to do so. Yet, here’s the rub. If a company has a strong focus on production yet offers little space for the creativity needed to develop solutions, innovation is inhibited.

Why Innovation Should Intertwine with Production

Historically, innovation and production were mixed. Think about the farmer in the field who experiences how cumbersome it is to use a plow. So, she innovates. She attaches the plow to a cow and suddenly she has a cow-powered plow! Innovation stems from a desire to make production more efficient and effective. Yet, somewhere along the line, with hyper-specialization, we began to separate innovation from production to a point that inhibited innovation at the production line.

Keeping production and innovation separate is not nearly as beneficial as melding the two together. Isolating researchers from the production team can lead to solutions divorced from the real problems. To overcome this siloed approach, researchers must work closely with the production team, or, even better, the production team must become part of the innovation process. Earlier input from those who will use the product or solutions can ensure researchers go down a more useful path.

Surprisingly, the isolated approach is a model that we also see replicated at some of the world’s most innovative companies. At IBM Labs, for example, its campus of Nobel Prize scientists and researchers have limitless resources, yet, they can be so far removed from what was happening at IBM’s production line that they exist in an ivory tower, detached from reality.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Google. Google has recognized that if it empowers its staff, they will come up with amazing, monetizable ideas. With the Google 80/20 approach (giving staff 20% of their time to innovate), teams are given the necessary bandwidth for creativity and R&D. Though they have adjusted the program, they did recognize the potential of empowering their engineering team to innovate.   

Flexible R&D Leads to Great Ideas

Of course, most organizations aren’t Google and don’t have the financial means to sacrifice 20% of production time. At EastBanc Technologies, we’ve developed a different approach, which has proved just as successful in its outcomes – we call it an elastic approach to production and R&D. Rather than setting aside dedicated R&D resources, we’ve adopted this flexible approach so that everyone is empowered to be innovative even if it changes the production schedule.

Our team knows that if they have an idea, leadership will listen and consider it seriously. For example, as our developers work on projects, they may identify recurring inefficiencies or problems that need solving. We give them the space to consider a viable solution, even if it means having to substitute the team member(s) on certain projects so that their creative momentum goes uninterrupted. This is where great ideas are born. Clearly, parameters are required. We can’t give everyone a free rein or 20% of their time across the board to explore ideas. It’s simply not feasible, and may not yield innovative ideas frequently enough to make it profitable. Instead, we vet ideas that originate from our production teams, and if the leadership team sees potential, and enough customers agree, the necessary time and resources are allocated.

Of course, this creates a resource conundrum. Many businesses may not think they have sufficient staff to experiment, that the pace of business is too fast and that they must focus solely on production to keep up with demand. All valid points, but shortsighted ones. During creative phases, your team will identify inefficiencies and help improve your internal processes and workflows, even create new business opportunities.

The trick is to ensure that creative phases don’t overtake production. R&D should always be a small portion of a company’s overall work, but should ideally yield valuable results consistently. When an innovative idea is generated take the time to nurture it and recognize that it could translate into efficiencies or an opportunity.

Research always flows into our projects and wherever possible we seek to repeat the lessons learned and grow products out of the experience. Below are just a few examples of this elastic approach at work at EastBanc Technologies that have also resulted in significant business opportunities.

Faster Digital Creation Born of Frustration

When a developer in our production team reported being frustrated by the speed of mobile app development and the engineering understanding of designers, we encouraged him to find a solution. The developer eventually, through many trials, created a great product - Sympli.

The solution, among other things, can detect mobile OS conflicts before the design is shared with development. Sympli flags design updates that developers might not see, so all updates are implemented in the next iteration. These small but significant fixes resulted in a 20% time/cost reduction per design iteration. Today, more than 50,000 developers use Sympli to produce applications that are used by millions of people each day.

Microsoft Snaps Up An APIphany

Another example comes from our work with APIs. The importance of scalable, robust, secure, and managed APIs has grown a lot since smartphones became ubiquitous. As part of our production work in mobilizing enterprise systems and connecting them to mobilized consumers, APIs take center stage. As such, our customer implementations involve the deployment of an API management system; yet we found that we had to heavily customize each system for every possible use case.

With a small relatively investment, we found that the code base for the system could be hardened into a new software product. With R&D embedded organically in the production team from day one, we incubated a new software product company – APIphany – with built-in customers from the start.

With a rapidly growing customer and revenue base, within 12 months Microsoft acquired the intellectual property – a stunning liquidity event for EastBanc Technologies and our innovators.

The Answer for Enterprise-Grade Kubernetes Management Problems

A final example of where this elastic approach to R&D and innovation has succeeded is in our DevOps business. As part of our ongoing customer application development and deployment projects, particularly in the cloud world, our production team noticed a slowdown of deployments of applications from EastBanc Technologies-hosted environments (e.g. development environments, QA environments, staging, etc.) to customer-hosted environments (e.g. staging E, testing E, production E, failover E, etc.).

To reduce the friction of adopting these new technologies and methods, broadly summarized as DevOps, our production team packaged them into a software product called Kublr. Just as in the previous examples, our production team also took on the role of innovations team with only minimal delineation between the two. Production = innovation. Kublr now operates as a stand-alone business unit.

A Guide to Nurturing R&D During Production

An elastic approach to innovation and production isn’t an overnight venture; you must adopt a strategic mindset and best practices. Here are five that have worked for us:

1. Develop Talent

First, you need to hire the right people -- people who care about outcomes, people you intrinsically trust, people who don’t need to be micro-managed. Then, invest in them over time.

2. Encourage Experimentation

Once they are on-board, empower them. When you give them a challenge, don’t set a pre-determined direction, allow them the freedom to investigate and find the best solution on their own. A good way to start is with an open problem statement (much like in academia). Trust your staff and provide them with the tools they need – this will have a powerful effect on creativity, motivation, and happiness. Not only will they come up with great ideas and be more productive, but, you are also more likely to retain them.

3. Get Together

Another step to take is a no-home office policy. We want our people to work and collaborate in a group setting. When our developers get in a room together they foster ideas and whiteboard innovation in ways that you can’t replicate remotely.

4. Offer Real Rewards

We also don’t offer bonuses for inventions. Instead, we give our innovators ownership. They work harder, but also get their share once the company or idea is sold or generates a profit. It’s an approach that engenders an entrepreneurial spirit.

5. Start Small to Build Big

Empowering employees doesn’t mean there is no oversight. Production time is important and should only be sacrificed for viable opportunities that align with business goals. Keep everyone on point by insisting on incremental solutions with constant feedback loops. We use a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) approach. For example, identify your first goal – it could be to enhance a product based on customer feedback. But you need to translate this big problem into small problem statements, and then prioritize them. Using an Agile methodology, divide that goal into five iterations or “sprints” over the course of five weeks. But don’t let your developers sprint alone; have them meet on a regular basis (daily and weekly check-ins), especially with potential users, to discuss progress, next steps, and impediments.

During these sprints, it may emerge that you need to switch direction. Through constant iteration and adaptation, the product is refined, and a successful outcome is brought closer to bear.

This is contrary to a purely academic approach that doesn’t allow for “real world” testing. If it does, it is often late into the process and not early on in the research phase. With the MVP, theory is tested before continuing forward. It also gives your team space for mini failures.

Final Thoughts

Introducing cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey. Companies that look for ways to integrate their research and production will then be able to reap the benefits of both a strong production line and the creativity of their employees. As management, give the process time to evolve organically and gradually. You’ll soon see that once you start, you can’t stop it! The efficiencies are tangible and the business outcomes undeniable.

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