A couple of years ago, author and consultant Ken Cook penned what I consider a very well written & insightful article in The Hartford Business Journal titled "How One Connecticut Company Puts Innovation Into Action".
In the article, CEO Chris Ulbrich explains "action is about transforming ideas into committed action, and having an adherence to and a focus throughout the organization to those ideas and plans. To do it year after year is the art." Year after year for Ulbrich Steel is 4 generations and 98 of them.
Interestingly enough, one of the key concepts of "lean process and product development" is the fact that a company's only real competitive advantage is its collective ability to transform learning & insight into action. The faster the learning & action, the higher the innovation, the higher the prosperity for all stake holders.
I believe what makes Ulbrich Steel one of the most innovative companies I have ever seen is spelled out very well in Ken's article. Coincidently, the late Allen Ward, in his book "Lean Product and Process Development", touches on the exact same cultural qualities required to achieve a "learning organization":
• High levels of trust and openness
• Collaborative approach with less focus on hierarchy (and silos).
• Leadership consistently and visibly models open-minded behaviors.
• New ideas are heard with an ear toward possibilities.
• Risk-taking is prudent, flexible and creative.
Do you think it is a coincidence that Ulbrich Steel has been named one of the Best Companies to Work in Central Connecticut multiple times (see picture above)? People living at the very top of Maslow's pyramid makes work fun.
Ulbrich's very strong commitment to a LEAN strategy is one example of how Ulbrich Steel innovates. They use the A3 process to convert ideas into action. Not once in a while. Continuous improvement. By everyone. Over 3/4 of these A3s start with an idea from an employee looking to improve their own work. Their lean journey is a ride open to the most seasoned veteran as well as the recently hired. Everyone is invited and encouraged to innovate every day, and they are provided the resources to turn their ideas into action. No approval process, no silos. Compare THAT to a suggestion box sitting on a wall empty for months or years on end. Imagine working in a company where process changes happen so fast that the ink on the "standard work document" isn't even dry before the next improvement happens?
This culture of continuous improvement (kaizen) is indeed innovative and if you think about it, a real competitive advantage (leveraging every brain in the company). It is the end result of an incredibly uncommon level of TRUST. Quite simply, it is trusting that a furnace operator with 30 years experience is the best qualified human on the planet to make improvements to his work. My favorite definition of "respect for people" is that it is disrespectful for ME to fix YOUR job.
Innovation cannot be thought of as the realm of new product development or a few people alone. It is incredibly innovative to learn how to tap into the single biggest (and often unused) resource.....the brainpower of every single human.
Ulbrich Steel, a 4th generation company that began 98 years ago, continues to grow and evolve like a startup!!! For a quick fun read, check out the Timeline of Ulbrich Stainless History | Ulbrich.