November 2008

To innovate, be flexible, think smart

By Gregory Hale, InTech, Editor

Strong leaders always know the right decision. They not only know when they have to be firm and make the tough decision, but also when they have to allow others to step up and make the call.

Sudipta Bhattacharya is very aware of what it takes.

"We are all part of a value chain," said Bhattacharya, president of Wonderware, during the WonderWorld Conference in Las Vegas in October. "United States manufacturing has done a tremendous job of competing globally. The challenge is still there. We need to do more, as we are asked to do more."

One of the ways Bhattacharya said manufacturers can remain out front is empower workers on the front line. "We need to bring intelligence closer to the execution level."

Think about it: Allowing people on the front line to make a decision. No more micro managers hovering over just waiting to pounce, ready to announce "I am the real decision maker here."

No, it would be time for the front line to get answers and decide. No more waiting for the suit in the corner to ponder the political ramifications.

Bringing decision making to the front line is one new innovation. Bhattacharya also said manufacturers have to rethink their creative process.

"Most of the seeds of innovation will come from outside the company," he said. "We need to have a way to manage the flow of ideas. We need to realize the multiform decentralized interdependent collaboration community is the way of the future," he said.

He talked about Wonderware's "ecosystem," which consists of partners, systems integrators, vendors, suppliers, and customers.

They work, learn, and profit from everyone. Everyone works together as a team, and they all win. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that was the way of the world today? Choose partners, and stick with them. Innovation 101.

Martin Eberhard, co-founder of Tesla Motors, used simple level-headed thinking when it came to creating an electric-powered sports car.

"Fuel cells were hot in 2003, and everyone said we were in the hydrogen economy and we were all going to be driving fuel-cell powered cars. But you had to think where the hydrogen came from. One important ingredient to make hydrogen is electricity."

After analyzing the situation, Eberhard thought why not just go straight to the source and use electricity without creating a process on board the car to generate electricity. The more processes you add in, the more there was a chance for something to fail. So, why not just keep it simple.

His car, however, could not be a "glorified golf cart." It had to be cool. Something everyone would want. That is why he partnered with Lotus and created a sports car run on battery power that can do 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds.

That is where another innovation came in, the type of battery the car should use. Traditionally, electric cars used acid-based batteries, but Eberhard wanted to use a lithium ion battery, the same product used in a laptop computer.

With that innovation, and quite of bit of trial and error, Tesla Motors is now out in front of all the major auto companies in producing an electric car.

Innovation is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It has quite a few sizes, shapes, and forms. With a weakened economy, and with predictions for a weaker 2009 coming in daily, this is no time to hunker down and live with what you have got. Instead, it is time to get smart and get aggressive. Listen, learn, and grow.

Talk to me: ghale@isa.org or (919) 990-9275.