Innovation Creates Winners

Some of the most interesting shops I have been in are those that have developed their own products or methods that might give them a leg up on the competition.

About the time I reached high school, the harsh reality began to set in that I really didn’t have the talent, and perhaps more so, the mental toughness that it would take for me to eventually play major league baseball. Although my dreams were crushed, coming to terms with the notion did not at all diminish my love for the game. I often tossed around career choice ideas that would allow me to be involved, such as coaching, umpiring or sports management. The one related job that seemed most attractive to me was that of a baseball scout. If not for the low pay and limited opportunities, perhaps I would have pursued that route.

Even today, I could easily see myself spending countless hours at ballparks, watching games, observing talent, developing relationships with players and coaches, clocking pitches, timing runners, and then reporting to my team’s general manager that I had found the next Derek Jeter on a high school diamond in Grandfield, Okla.

Like any profession, that of a baseball scout has changed through the years. Recently, baseball organizations have come to rely far more on in-depth statistics (sabermetrics) to help them assemble teams that match what they view as a winning formula. According to the book (and movie) “Moneyball,” this concept was introduced by Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane in the early 2000s. It was an innovative shift in thinking that helped create a consistent winning environment, despite the team’s budget being well below the league average. Since its introduction, most other teams have incorporated these methods into their scouting processes.

In the same way that baseball management has used ingenuity to transform its approach to rebuilding the team foundation, manufacturing businesses should be open-minded in their support of new ideas. Not every idea is going to take hold, but excluding all creativity eliminates the possibility of that “next big thing.”

Some of the most interesting shops I have been in are those that have developed their own products or methods that might give them a leg up on the competition. It might be a unique workholding fixture, a creative job tracking system, or perhaps even a different approach to training employees, but it’s an idea that was developed in-house by people who saw a need because they were closely involved in the process. Sometimes, these shops see such products as potential money makers and attempt to market them. Other times, the shops see the products as a competitive advantage, and they keep them to themselves, requesting that I don’t even mention the specifics of it in my coverage. Either way, these companies have shown an openness to creativity and are being rewarded for the results.

Such innovation can be seen among our industry’s suppliers, as well. I recently had the opportunity to visit Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop, which opened in the fall of 2013. This fabrication facility is set up to help the company gain a better understanding of the significance of the interface between software and hardware on the design and production process. With a heavy emphasis on creativity, employees and artists-in-residence are encouraged to push the boundaries of the company’s software and hardware tools to accomplish what was previously believed to be impossible.

As if the setting alone—sitting on a pier extending out onto San Francisco Bay—wasn’t cool enough, many of the innovative concepts that are in development or are already on display at the facility were worth checking out. And sure, while a conference table with chairs attached, the entire unit suspended from the ceiling to enable it to swing, might not immediately scream, “Better manufacturing production,” this type of creativity may be just the spark to initiate an innovative design element.

When people are not only permitted, but are encouraged to think outside the box, good things invariably happen. But when they sit back in their comfort zone, counting on continued success because doing things a certain way worked for them in the past, the creative world is likely to pass them by.

View a slideshow of my Pier 9 experience (as well as a tour of the company’s One Market Street Gallery)