Building the Culture of Innovation

A.K. Prakash, Head- Advance Engineering, HELLA India Automotive
Innovation plays a critical role in the growth of any organization. In this article I would like to briefly summarize my experience based on leading new product development for automotive industry. Automotive industry is going through constant change with more and more electronics as we see amalgamation of different technologies for smarter vehicles to achieve better efficiency, comfort and safety. Automotive companies will have to be innovative to meet future needs and aspiration of customers. It is clear that, not being innovative is a way to perish.

Innovation can be broadly classified in to the following simple steps

• Idea generation

•Converting these ideas in to a useful & commercially viable product

•Scaling up to the customer needs

In this article I would like to focus on the first two aspects of innovation and the role organization can play to improve these steps.

The corner stone of successful idea generation is the problem you select to solve. The leaders of the organization should ensure that the problems for the idea generation is real and has a strategic alignment to the organization. Organization should have a process to constantly monitor various trends and extrapolate them to identify source of problems. It is fine to spend enough time to define the right problem statement for idea generation. While selecting the problem statement following points should be kept in mind

• Is the problem generic? These problem statements will be general in nature and ideas may need lots of refinement to implement. Many employees should be able to contribute to solve such problems. Example: How can you open a car’s trunk when both of your hands are occupied?

• Is it very specific where domain knowledge is required? This could be from the existing projects where team is not able to solve something. We should be able to implement these ideas straight away. Normally some expertise needed to solve such problems and hence participation would be low. Example: How can you eliminate an energy consuming component from a hardware design?

In the first type of problem statement organization will have to spend good time with the innovators to improve the ideas to an implementable level. On the other hand the second level of problem statements, organization will have to spend time in educating the problem statement to interested employees. So in both the cases, organization involvement is necessary. The duration of this idea generation phase can be from 3-4 weeks.

Once we have good ideas from the people, jury selected by the organization can evaluate them based on categories such as

• Novelty

• Strategic alignment

• Feasibility

• Business potential

The jury plays a key role as selected ideas will expect funding, execution and success as a new product. Organization should be able to assess the jury’s selection and make necessary changes if required. Measures like number of patentable ideas can be helpful to assess the maturity of the organization.

Once we have all the good ideas, next step is to convert them in to a prototype or prove the concept. Normally this phase is not at all straight forward. The process should help the team to validate the assumptions and learn from it very fast. This should be repeated in small steps till the concept is proved. The prototype should be able to address all the new risks which you are not familiar with and meet the key performance targets unique to your products. We should ensure that the organization process and mind set should not create confusion and treat this as a final product. Aim of this phase should be fail cheap, if required. Simulation capability, time to validate assumptions and robustness of performance targets can be measures.

After successful prototype and patenting your ideas, a test of the product with a key customer will add value. Assumptions in the first two steps might undergo a change at this testing phase. The next phase would be the design, development and manufacturing of the product as per the organization process. It is important for the organization leadership to nurture the culture of innovation by repeatedly following these steps and striving to improve the measures at each stage. Figure given below summarizes the innovation process.