Systemic Innovation & Process Improvement

If you have been keeping up-to-date on articles relating to Lean, Six Sigma and BPM then you will notice that there is a repeating pattern that can be found in every new methodology that has become a recent fad. Six Sigma is in fact the product of re-branding of models and tools that have been available since early 20th century. Lean, Six Sigma and BPM all dervice from tried and tested theorems such as statistical controls, Deming's PDCA cycle, facilitation & brainstorming techniques and more.

Recently I have become engrossed in a long forgotten and little publicised methodology for creativity and systemic innovation - TRIZ. Learn more about TRIZ by visiting the TRIZ trade journal website or look it up on WikiPedia.

I have been re-reading a book written by Genrich Altshuller (the visionary behind TRIZ) titled "And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared". Altshuller described the development of innovative systems as one having four periods:
  1. Selection of parts for the system: This is akin to the initial development of airplanes when inventors interested in creating a flying machine had very basic questions such as "what materials should it be made of?", "what are the basic parts?", "should it have fixed wings?", "how will it be powered?", etc.
  2. Improvements to the parts: Now that the invention (airplane for instance) has been proven to work we can set on improving its individual components: a more powerful engine, lighter wings, larger fuselage, etc
  3. Dynamization of the system: Parts shift their role to assume a different one. Wings that change their profile, collapsible fuselage, propeller that can operate vertically as well as horizontally for upward lift, retractable landing gear.
  4. Self-development of the system: The system can adapt to changes in its environment. Today's rockets and space systems that dispose of their own parts, adjust their position automatically to maintain orbit or open up solar panels to replenish energy using solar power.
If you examine this list is sounds slightly like Demings Plan, Do, Check and Act cycles. However as I thought about the four periods I realized that it mimics exactly what we do in our work on improving core business processes or when we try to transform organizations to a process-centric thinking:
  1. Selection of parts for the system: When an organization lacks any process definitions (i.e. it is in the initial phases of the process-maturity curve) we find ourselves scrambling to select the parts for the process that will become the permanent and formal definition for the process. When I think of my past initiatives, the first thing I do what assessing a process that has never been defined, captured and documented is to decide how to call the individual pieces (process steps or components) and how they inter-connect. This is based on interviews and informal process mapping techniques ("what do you do with the paper once you get it from X? Who do you send it to?") For a newly defined process, these parts have to be selected and given a title, even if people are repeatedly performing tasks within the individual process steps being assembled in the definition of the overall process.

    For more ideas on a component approach to business processes and the impact SOA has had on business component thinking see IBM's excellent article: "Impact of Service Orientation at the Business Level", IBM Systems Journal, Vol 44, No 4, 2005 Cherbakov Et Al . 653.
  2. Improvement of the parts: So now that you have gone through an assessment of the business process the next thing you will probably do is look for low hanging fruit and follow a methodology such as Lean or Six Sigma (or combination thereof) to improve the process capabilities. Sounds similar to improving the airplane parts above, doesn't it? In transactional processes this means automatic certain steps (e.g. combustion engine on an airplane versus human-powered airplane) and eliminating unnecessary steps in the process (e.g. eliminating additional wings from tri-plane to bi-plane to monoplane)
  3. Dynamization of the system: One technique we use in business process management is reusable components or shared services. For instance: if multiple creative processes use the "legal review" process step then it can become a reusable or shared service. Thus the individual step "legal review" take a modified form in that i can be invoked for more than a single purpose and alters from its originally intended purpose.
  4. Self-development of the system: Lean Six Sigma gurus will immediately recognize this period as the continuous improvement. A stable and mature process that has been brought under control reaches a higher level of existence by developing continuous improvement capabilities. In reality this has to do with roles and responsibilities and an incentive to continuously improve a process from within: incentives, roles & responsibilities and policies & procedures established with the goal in mind to be able to detect opportunities to improve a process on an ongoing basis.

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