The ‘Initiative’ Olympic Games

Coordinating events and creating a multifaceted
plan to engage the entire organization

by Mike Carnell

It seems that the business world has experienced a fairly rapid transition in focus to "innovation" as the next initiative or the next big thing. Meanwhile, leadership teams wander the vast Serengeti Plain of performance improvement.

This initiative wanderlust often elicits jaded responses from middle managers who contend this is the new "flavor of the day" while they are left with the task of implementing it inside their silos.

When managers refer to a new initiative as the flavor of the day, they are really thinking about that widely used proverb, "This too shall pass." What is a proverb? According to Merriam-Webster.com, it’s defined as a belief that’s generally thought to be true or not necessarily what is really true. Spreading that "flavor of the day" comment across an organization is the first step in marginalizing the new initiative before it even begins.

Looking back over the last two decades, improvement initiatives executed in the business world seem similar to watching the Olympic Games on TV. Both are a series of competitions—relatively unrelated to one another—performed by individuals who have perfected their skills in a relatively narrow range or a group of individuals or team members who represent a country that may or may not be instrumental in fostering the level of performance these individuals or teams are capable of achieving. Of course, this is a metaphorical reference to the Olympics and not meant to criticize the event in any way.

‘Initiative’ games

In the history of what I’ll call the "Initiative Olympic Games," we have exercised a plethora of performance improvement initiatives such as plan-do-check-act, total quality management, lean, Six Sigma, lean Six Sigma, the Shainin system, theory of constraints and ISO 9001, to name a few.

Or we have combined some of these initiatives simultaneously with some that fall outside of the realm of continuous improvement: enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management, low cost country purchasing, hoshin planning and various dashboards.

As viewers of the Olympic Games, we have the job to pick and choose, purely driven by our own personal tastes on which events are our favorite. TV networks have a different role: Piece together all of these independent events and create a cohesive telecast of the Olympic Games.

The jobs that these two groups perform are different, but it takes the combined efforts of many groups of individuals—among them athletes, trainers, the Olympic Committee and country delegations—for the world to view a world-class Olympic Games broadcast. At this high performance level, you rarely see athletes arguing about the superiority of the sprinter over a distance runner, or of the shot-putter over a discus thrower. These petty arguments are typically made by uninvolved bystanders with a shallow understanding of the overall product that is the Olympic Games.

The job of management in business is to behave as the TV network: Define the ultimate objective of the game, and coordinate many dissimilar activities and make them come together to move forward.

In other words, it’s management’s job to engage the entire organization—not just specific practitioners—into a cohesive multifaceted performance plan. Practitioners perform similarly to the athletes, while initiative trainers are like Olympic coaches and trainers. All these individuals pursue perfection within a very narrow scope. They also must trust the organization/TV network to do its job, culminating in a successful Olympic Games. It doesn’t mean they can excuse an individual’s poor performance because the organization or network does not seem to be performing.

Ability to change

In Jack: Straight From the Gut, Jack Welch offered great insight into how he prepared General Electric (GE) to become a performance-based company at a multifaceted level.1 Welch engaged in a series of initiatives—not just one—that built on previously deployed initiatives. Instead of abandoning them, he used the initiatives to create a successful performance-based culture.

One of Welch’s basic building blocks was change. A continuous improvement initiative, such as an ERP deployment, must take into consideration the organization’s ability to change as its foundation. This is how initiatives interact. GE created a system called the change acceleration process (CAP) to address this critical building block. CAP became part of the corporate culture long before many of the other initiatives were initiated. Applying this building-block process enabled the initiatives deployed later to be successful.

Back to our newest event—innovation. Before we look at our competing athletes, let’s check our facilities for the newest event. Innovation, like any other initiative, is about change. Probably the easiest way to view our corporate culture interest in change is to use a tool called "Google Trends," where search trends are tracked and explored daily by business users.2 Within the context of innovation, how much has interest in change management increased? See Figure 1.

Figure 1

It appears that there is not a notable increase in interest in change management. Perhaps, after all the other performance improvement initiatives have been implemented in our organizations, we have become experts at change. If we assume that organizations are good at implementing change management, shouldn’t an effort to recruit innovative people be the next logical step?

Let’s examine our Initiative Olympic Games athletes. With the increased interest in innovation, we must recruit individuals with records of success as innovators. But after conducting a quick search on Monster.com for design engineer jobs, I was able to find 74 design engineer jobs and 11 design manager jobs listed that mentioned "innovation."

So maybe the Master Black Belts (MBB) will do the innovation? This led me to do another quick search of MBB jobs (which resulted in zero postings) followed by a lean and innovation job search (which produced only six listings).

This must mean organizations are intending to train and develop their current personnel to be innovative, right? There are many tools and techniques to turn not-so-innovative individuals into innovators. But how do we decide whether to train current personnel or search for new talent?

Looking at the entirety

Best practice is the usual answer. Who would give us a best practice for innovation? Certainly Thomas Edison should be at the top of that list, with 1,093 U.S. patents and more than that worldwide. Edison also gave us the Edisonian approach,3 which, in a Google search, gets 29,300 results in 0.56 seconds. This seems to be a fairly small number for such a relevant topic in today’s business world.

Maybe best practice comes from the Edward de Bono camp? Its innovation method gets 11,800 results on Google in 0.36 seconds in comparison. It is good to know that Edison’s bowler hat appears to create more interest than the six-colored hat theory.4

How about TRIZ, the Russian acronym for Genrich Altshuller’s theory of inventive, creative problem solving? It gets 825,000 hits in Google Trends in 0.35 seconds, which makes more sense, right? A method with tool sets and a knowledge base should be a better practice than what’s being offered by someone who was so successful in his invention process.5

Understanding that one-factor-at-a-time (OFAT) experimentation is extremely risky if a process contains interactions, why do we attempt to improve our organizations with an OFAT process while ignoring the interactions between various initiatives?

In other words, we try to run the Initiative Olympic Games with one or two events. When we examine our current endeavor into innovation, it does not appear to be a building block in the basic foundation to launch an initiative, and we do not appear to be recruiting world-class innovators, that is, Olympic-level athletes. We ignore best practice and opt for innovation methods with all the bells and whistles that don’t address the whole organization at a multifaceted level.

Collectively, it would appear that we are again trying to create the Olympic Games with a single event.

As irritating as it is sometimes to hear "There is no such thing as a silver bullet," we have taught individuals to act as if there is a silver bullet in the way we deploy business improvement initiatives. We model our behavior at improving an organization’s performance by undertaking OFAT experimentation with initiatives.

We chose something we recognize as flawed at the process level, rather than creating a multifaceted plan that engages the entire organization to advance the organization to a performance-based organization.

Reference and Note

  1. Jack Welch and John A. Byrne, Jack: Straight From the Gut, Business Plus, 2003.
  2. Google Trends, www.google.com/trends.
  3. For more information about the Edisonian approach, visit http://edisonian.weebly.com/the-edisonian-approach.html.
  4. For more information about Edward de Bono’s thinking tools and techniques, including the Six Thinking Hats, a parallel thinking method, visit www.debonoconsulting.com.
  5. For more information about the TRIZ method, visit www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCT_92.htm#sthash.7NgpUvqz.dpuf.

Mike Carnell is president and CEO of CS International in New Braunfels, TX. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Arizona State University in Tempe. Carnell is a member of ASQ.

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