Creating an Innovation Culture Within Manufacturing

Andrew Walker is Director of Business Engagement at the MADE Project – a suite of European funded projects, delivered by University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) through its research Centre for Advanced Batch Manufacture (CBM). He shares his insights into creating a vibrant innovation culture.

CEO’s can be surprisingly resistant to the idea of fostering an innovation culture within the workplace. Perhaps it conjures up images of the kind of Google-esque offices that sport beanbags and table tennis tables in their communal areas, and where staff sit on balance balls while they work!

More likely it is because most manufacturing firms thrive upon the predictability and standardisation that lends itself to scalability. The prospect of ideas-people spending time brainstorming fresh ideas and novelties and upsetting the status quo by stepping out of their pre-defined roles and tasks, may not seem like a great use of time, in our competitive era.

However, manufacturing has always driven the swift evolution of technology. Has there ever been a time when the consumer has expected more and more innovation, and new and updated, quality iterations of their favourite products to keep them engaged?

It is clear too that innovation can and does lead to greater efficiencies – and no manufacturer will turn their nose up at that. Many of the biggest names in manufacturing are attuned to the fact that valuable, viable innovation does not simply emerge from behind the door of the R&D department. More often, it comes from the workers at the coal face. Those who interact with the end user, and those who create the end product are best placed to know what adaptations and innovations are needed and will be marketable. So, it is important that companies encourage everyone within a company to make innovative thinking an embedded part of what they do. The average Toyota worker, for example, including those working on its assembly line, is said to contribute more than a hundred ideas every year. Your workforce really is your greatest asset!

So, how can an employer foster a culture of innovation?

Give employees time to innovate

This approach may not suit every operation, but if you want people to innovate, setting aside time in which they are encouraged to do, works for firms like 3M and Google. It is their company policy to invite staff to spend up to 20 percent of their time working on projects of their own choosing. 3-M instigated this kind of policy back in the 1940s – and I’m sure it is still going strong.

Nominate an Innovation Champion

All organisations have those magic members of staff who, thanks to their engaging, encouraging personality, bring out the best in others. Identify this person and make them your innovation champion. This role should not be given to someone because of their elevated place in the managerial hierarchy. Task them to engage with staff at all levels, inviting their ideas in both an informal way and at structured, regular meetings.  Support them to seek out the creative thinkers who have, until now, been keeping their heads down the simply dealing with the task in hand.

Create a resource library for innovation

You already have a workforce that is engaged with manufacturing, engineering, tech, STEM and with the beautiful art of ‘making things work’. Foster their fascinations by creating a library of resources that can be dipped into by all staff members whenever they want to. 

Reward innovative thinking

Incentives: cash, wine, chocolate, an afternoon off, a big, public thank you. These all work.

Suspend your ingrained assumptions

If you are an old hand in your industry you will have seen scores of innovations and ideas come and go. So, there is a danger that you are pre-disposed to quash ideas that feel familiar, because they did not succeed in the past. This kind of natural bias and interpretation can shut down innovative thinking. Let each fresh idea breathe and unfold as it needs to. New minds, new marketplaces, new tools and new technologies might bring success where, previously there was failure.

Embrace failure

Failure is an integral part of innovation and your reaction to it will set the tone for future innovation. It is vital that failure is embraced as an opportunity to learn. Failures bring with them fresh data and concrete insights that can be used further down the line. Bubble wrap, the pacemaker, the Dyson vacuum cleaner all came from failure. (WD-40 is so-named because the previous 39 versions didn’t quite work.)

For further details about the MADE Project, which is supported by the Welsh Government and the European Regional Development Fund, and by the European Structural and Investment Funds, go to: https://www.madecymru.co.uk/