Feb 11, 2011

Perspiration, innovation, and success.

On a day like today, 164 years ago (Feb 11, 1847), Thomas Alva Edison was born. Most people know about Edisson as the inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph, and that he invented a bunch of other things (but have little to no idea what those other inventions are). He held a recortd 1093 patents! According to the Wikipedia, Edisson had only three months of official schooling--he dropped out amongst other things because he was considered "addled".

Edisson is also credited to have said "Invention is 1 percent genius and 99 percent perspiration"--he might have had quite a metabolism. But really, what made him do so much was a combination of high energy, a curious mind, and an amazing skill for making associations. Figuring out new, different ways to put seemingly unrelated things together and coming up with new applications to things that already existed or that he had invented were the skills allowed him to do so much. Just look at his inventions and you will see that most of them were incremental inventions; an invention was built from the results of a previous one. But that wasn't all, he was a great businessman and created an industry to support him, so the 99 percent perspiration was done mostly by all the workers he had at his factories and laboratories. A good number of the inventions and patents weren't a result of his ideas but rather the result of the collaboration with some of those workers; and some key ideas were actually from those people and not from Edisson himself.

Edisson's Menlo Park, NJ laboratory

Long before lean manufacturing and before Frederick Taylor, Edisson was pioneering mass production; most likely influenced by the raise of the Industrial Revolution and the works of Eli Whitney Jr., who make key inventions on machinery to automate some processes for the textile an milling industry.

Edison had an amazing insight on the importance to balance value to customer and value to the Enterprise to have a successful business. He also understood the importance of collaboration as a means to accelerate innovation. The conversations held with his most important workers and seriously consideration and analysis of what they proposed led to most of "his" inventions.

Today's organizations have fallen behind. They make employees work isolated inside cubicles and "teamwork" is rally a buch of people working by themselves on separate pieces of a product. Communication between groups in the organization is limited to orders and FYI's mostly. The groups building products have no direct, or very little, contact with customers or end users. The enterprise's priority is to make profit and not to satisfy users. As we try to turn things around applying Value Innovation, Lean-Agile, and Kanban we often confront strong resistance to change.  It seems some executives are so afraid of failure that they lost track of the fact that to move ahead of the competition and to succeed it is important to move away from the beaten path and do something new and different; and that to do so we have to be willing to invest and perspire,