What’s required to deliver scalable, sustainable innovation?

Innovation is often regarded as the most important driver for business growth, but what is the role of senior management in successfully achieving – and not preventing – scalable and sustainable innovation?

The question anchored an exclusive roundtable discussion held as part of The Manufacturer Director’s Forum and co-hosted with Capgemini – a global leader in consulting, technology services and digital transformation.

The conversation had input from senior managers representing UK businesses operating in a variety of sectors and of varying sizes. Approximately 65% are prime automotive, aerospace and defence manufacturers, and all are innovation-focused and leaders in their respective markets.

CROP - intellectual property digital economy innovation light bulb - image courtesy of Depositphotos

What does innovation mean to you?

Proceedings began with a heated discussion unpicking what innovation actually means, with opinion splitting the room.

Several attendees were happy to use the term for any activity that delivered shareholder value, subscribing to the notion that innovation is broader than periodically releasing new or tweaked goods, encompassing any form of continual development across your people, processes and products.

Their perspective conflicted with the other prevailing view that the term had become something of a catch-all buzzword.

“Innovation now spans releasing a new product or feature to the market through to marginal efficiency gains, sharing best practice, and everything in-between. It feels almost as if our industry’s established continuous improvement activities have undergone a rebrand,” said one attendee.

His comment resonated with several others in the room who all noted that their customers expect continuous improvement as standard and would be unwilling to accept such advancements as ‘innovation’.

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Regardless of your preferred definition, it was universally agreed that businesses can’t afford to stand still. In fact, for sectors such as automotive, aerospace and defence, standing still is tantamount to moving backwards. The conflict lies in these industries being highly regulated, which can stifle innovation.

“Perpetual learning in motion is deeply embedded in our organisation,” said the managing director of a major supplier of stainless steel sanitary ware and professional foodservice equipment.

“We can’t afford to take our eye off the market in terms of consumer trends, new entrants and established competition, potential disruption and opportunities. We strive to question everything we do and why, but that can be difficult to achieve when you have pressing orders and demands to fulfil at the same time,” he continued.

This desire to constantly ask why should be celebrated and nurtured, according to Capgemini’s head of aerospace and defence, Nigel Thomas, who noted that one of the greatest challenges facing UK businesses is the blind acceptance of the mantra ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it, so that’s the way we’ll always do it.’

Who really owns your innovation agenda?

Who drives innovation in your business largely depends on your definition, but most would agreed that it requires top-down sponsorship from the board, supported by strategic ‘change champions’ located within specific teams, departments or businesses (depending on the make-up of your organisation).

Leadership Employee Enagement Collaboration Innovation - Stock-Image

There was some discussion over exactly where these champions should be situated, but of greater importance was them knowing who to talk to and which buttons to push to scale projects or technologies. Such knowledge takes time and experience to develop, however, as does knowing any organisational shortcuts that may exist.

Employee suggestion boxes or team huddles to capture improvement ideas from front-line workers with direct experience of particular processes and workflows have become commonplace. Yet, a lack of appropriate people being formally tasked with assessing and escalating each suggestion, means their value is often lost – an issue that could be overcome by change champions.

Supporting your workforce to embrace disruption was a hot topic and represented a challenge for many of the businesses represented. ‘Fail fast, fail forward’ has become a popular goal, but successfully transitioning to a culture that embraces and drives change when previously the focus was on standardisation and repetition shouldn’t be underestimated.

“We want to promote every failure being a learning opportunity, but engineering is built on absolutes,” said one operations director. “Workers have previously been rewarded for doing and saying the right thing, but innovation relies on those who challenge the established norm. How do you successfully convince your employees that it’s okay to fail and they won’t be penalised for it?”

“Many manufacturers are struggling to keep pace with the cultural, technological and training transformation necessary to succeed in the modern global trading landscape,” explained Lina Huertas, a digital manufacturing expert from the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry (one of the UK’s seven High Value Manufacturing Catapults).

“Against such disruption, it can be difficult for businesses to innovate and change their ways of working. It’s tricky, for example, when you have the solution but not the people or skills to support its implementation. That’s where our pioneering network of Catapult centres play such a vital role.”

Getting innovation projects off the ground

Attendees expressed numerous reasons why their organisation struggled to innovate successfully, such as:

“In our industry, security and reliability has to come first; innovation comes second,” – engineering integration manager.

“We are a market leader whose brand is built on trust and reliability. That’s a good thing, but it means we’ve become risk averse and less agile and flexible as a result,” – managing director.

“The critical need for things to be right impedes our ability to innovate,” – head of business intelligence.

“There are different levels of innovation. The trouble with my organisation is that it’s very risk averse and treats everything like it was mission-critical,” senior integration engineer.

So, what can be done?

The real-world examples below were shared by attendees and will hopefully help inform your organisation’s approach in terms of its next, or even first, steps:

  • “My organisation [a multinational developer of cutting-edge space technologies] separates out parts of the businesses to focus specifically on innovation. For example, one sits within Silicon Valley tasked with keeping abreast of all the new advancements related to our field.”

  • “We gather a huge amount of information from our air platforms, but a lot of this data was often freely given away. Now, we are combining different data streams and selling it on to ensure the supply chain of one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies, for example, isn’t encroaching on rainforest and other protected lands.”

  • “As a world leading defence manufacturer, we have a strong internal innovation alongside that which is developed externally through partnerships. We employ an ‘open innovation’ approach, both ‘inbound’ such as mobilising knowledge, methods and technologies existing outside of the company, alongside ‘outbound’, i.e. that which exists inside the company. We also benefit from a dedicated R&D team who are involved in the development, maturation and implementation of, say, artificial intelligence, for example.”

  • “Our group of companies spans manufacturing, logistics and rail and employ its own way of working, a guiding philosophy that has been developed and refined over the past 20 years ago. The system engages with every single one of our employees, from the top floor to the shop floor, and equips them with the skills to diagnose problems and create innovative solutions. We also have ‘innovation champions’ in every business department and though they have day jobs, 20 – 30% of their time is focused on innovation and creative thinking”

  • “As a global technology leader in aerospace, defence and security, we foster a culture of innovation that is driven by continuous collaboration between our divisions and with external partners. One word sums up our approach to innovation – ‘collaboration’. We are part of more than 200 collaborative research projects and have partnerships with over 90 universities and research centres around the world. We also work with our customers, suppliers and start-ups. As a group, we invest around 10% of our total revenue into R&D and about 20% of our workforce is involved in innovation activities.”

  • “Given the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous [VUCA] sector we operate in, my business (a British multinational automotive manufacturer) believes that future success lies with ‘T-shaped’ people. Such people have broad knowledge to apply their skills and influence cross-functionally, alongside deep expertise in a core functional area. They can cope with VUCA, have a desire to permanently live outside their comfort zone, and their personal development habits support continuous learning and upskilling. To develop them, we’ve adopted a circular, four-stage process around refining our leadership style to accelerate people development; moving to a learning culture that is conductive to upskilling and development; setting T-shaped-focused learning requirements and targets; and created appropriate development tools to meet those targets.”

To continue the innovation conversation with Capgemini, contact Nigel Thomas, innovation leader and Head of Aerospace & Defence, or explore some of their award winning thought leadership and reports on their website – there are some excellent examples of innovation and how it is transforming businesses today.

*All images courtesy of Depositphotos