12/1/1998 | 4 MINUTE READ

Why Didn't You Think of That?

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What quality was to the 80's and lean is to the 90's, creativity will be to the 00's. The first two are all about getting good, consistent, efficient, and productive. All of which are important. But they are primarily about the how. The what—as in what the processes and methods are applied to—is going to become increasingly important.

It's not that quality and efficiency are going to become less important. But what will become key is the ability to come up with things that go beyond the ordinary. We are all producers of something, be they tangible things—like a brake caliper or a suspension system or a full-blown vehicle—or a service—like engineering skill or management capability. The characteristics of the offering are important. What the object or the service being rendered is will make all the difference. Tom Peters urges that people go in "pursuit of WOW!"

And let's face it: presented with a choice between a ho-hum (sigh) product or service and a WOW! product or service, there can be little question as to which we'll select, especially if there is at least price parity between the two offerings. Certainly, we might be inclined to pay more for the WOW!, but those organizations that are able to produce that for the same (or less) price as the ho-hum (sigh) product will be in a hugely advantageous position.

So the trick is to come up with WOW! Now, some people might react: "`Trick' nothing. I work for a living. Tricks are for kids." To these people I can only extend my condolences and hope that what they do during their off-time makes up for the unmitigated hell they experience—for now—during their working hours. Undoubtedly, any manager faced with the choice between a drudge who is going through the motions, working for a living, and a fired-up do-er, the manager is going to keep the fired-up person and fire the drudge.

Or another reaction might be, "Oh, things like that are for the gang over in product design engineering. We mainly figure out how to make the stuff." Two responses to that one:

  1. Why should the design engineers have all the fun?
  2. Creativity isn't limited by one's job description.

Creative approaches are needed throughout an organization.

Quality doesn't have borders. Nor do lean principles. Creativity isn't any different.

What is apparent to anyone who talks to someone who is working on creating something that is beyond the ordinary is that the person in question is invariably enthusiastic about what she's doing. This energy is electric. It is difficult to come away from the conversation without feeling charged up. . .or slightly depressed if you aren't willing to go beyond the dictates of the "Because It's Always Been Done This Way" mindset. The choice is, of course, up to you: delight or drudgery.

One of the concerns that people often have when faced with the prospect of breaking out of the proverbial box and doing something creative is that they don't exactly know how to do it. They've been used to coloring inside the lines, and doing otherwise can be messy. (Let's be honest here: Not all things that have been colored outside the lines are good; some of them are downright awful. But there has to be a willingness to continue to wield the crayon until something really shines.)

If you're looking to get your creative juices bubbling and need something to stoke up your mental stove, I'd like to recommendCracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius by Michael Michalko (Ten Speed Press; Berkeley, CA; $24.95). This is Michalko's second book on the subject, with the first being the cleverly titled Thinkertoys (a title which is an example of how combining things can be useful).

Michalko argues that most of us, most of the time, confront new things the way we've confronted similar things in the past. In effect, we figure if it worked then, it will work now. But he maintains that the creative genius looks at each situation anew and performs more productive thinking, producing a whole lot of alternative approaches. The author writes, "One of the many ways our minds attempt to make life easier is to create a first impression of a problem. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspectives on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial." Or they can be narrow and deep, like a rut. Throughout Cracking Creativity he provides specific methods that can be used to break out of one's mental rut.

Although there are still undoubtedly some of you who are edgy about this whole notion of creativity, consider this: the Toyota Production System's kanban method was created by thinking about replenishment of line items in a factory in the context of stocking grocery store shelves. One of the fundamentals of that system is to ask "Why" five times. ("When you look at a problem using a multiplicity of perspectives instead of one stabilized view, you bring forth a new creative consciousness and an expansion of the possibilities," writes Michalko.) In this industry, there's nothing more down to earth than the TPS. And who wouldn't like to create a new one?