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When the Left Knows What the Right Hand’s Doing

By Robert "Buzz" Kross, Autodesk

Robert “Buzz” Kross

We all know about the nightmare where you’re back in the classroom and there’s a test; only it’s not on the subject that you studied. It’s the same feeling you get during a big OEM customer’s supplier assessment when both the quality of your product designs and the efficiency and responsiveness of your operations are under scrutiny.

In pursuit of compliance with customer mandates, there are several manufacturing principles and practices that rise and fall in popularity — and rise again. From Six Sigma to lean production to the catch-all category of “innovation,” these initiatives strive for that holy grail: “best-in-class” manufacturing.

The problem is that product development teams need to produce innovation without sacrificing efficiency. Not surprisingly, process and creativity can clash. However, some of the best-known brands have shown that focusing solely on one extreme or the other is detrimental.

Take IBM, for example. Big Blue’s turnaround from stodgy to inventive has been well-documented, and yet the company strikes an effective balance. Its global virtual brainstorms with industry luminaries and regular folks are carefully managed so that blue-sky thinking doesn’t derail its operations.

In contrast, at 3M, changes in management caused the pendulum to swing from a focus on innovation to a focus on process, as CEO James McNerney, a GE veteran, cut the workforce and introduced Six Sigma.

“Cultivating innovation and better processes creates the ambidextrous company.”

Currently Boeing’s CEO, McNerney flushed an R&D pipeline at 3M that was sluggish with too many projects. But process initiatives may have drained the company of opportunities to nurture hunches into research breakthroughs. Today, CEO George Buckley is trying to restore a measure of balance between efficiency and creativity.

From my perspective, the trade-off between efficiency and creativity even shows up in tools for design. For example, CAD software streamlines drafting tasks, but it doesn’t foster innovation. Some manufacturers are having it both ways with digital prototyping, a practice that uses a single 3D digital model to give industrial design, engineering, and production staff the power to simulate and understand the real-world performance of their ideas before they are built. By using the same digital model throughout the development process, teams can cut through conventional ways of working that might otherwise stall efficiency and innovation.

Cultivating “left-brained” innovation and “right-brained” process improvement is behind the notion of the “ambidextrous” company. The idea — courtesy of Charles O’Reilly III of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Michael Tushman of Harvard Business School — is one whose time has come, again.

When a customer conducts a pop quiz on your design capabilities or calls for a fire drill to modify a product in the pipeline, it’s nice to know the development team has the tools to pass the test.

Buzz Kross is senior vice president of Manufacturing Solutions for Autodesk. Send comments about this commentary to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.


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