Sunday, April 5, 2009

Innovation and incremental improvement

I was watching the Formula 1 race from Malaysia this morning. It was on live and early, so I had the TV to myself. For the past several years F1 has been dominated by McLaren and Ferrari. For the past few years the changes to the formula have been relatively small.

This year, however, the FIA have made some pretty dramatic changes – resulting in a major shake-up. The old factory Honda team is no more, but has become reborn as the Brawn F1 team (Ross Brawn, the man behind the rise of Michael Schumacher being the team principal). Toyota have also done well, with the red bull/toro rosso teams also having good outings.

So, what changed. I contend that this is a great example of the difference between steady, linear improvement as managed in lean/six sigma kinds of processes, and the need to be radically different as is the case when major innovation is necessary.

The FIA changed the rules dramatically. Back to slick tires, much reduced rear wing area, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) which charges batteries under braking so the power can be deployed at times to suit the driver. Adding an extra 80 hp for about 6 seconds a lap. Engine revs reduced to 18,000, etc.

The teams that appeared to treat the rule changes as evolutionary are doing poorly/ The teams that recognized the radical nature of the changes – and with little to lose, are doing much better.

So, perhaps where innovation is concerned we should not try to put it into well defined, six sigma, DMAIC based processes. Let the creative juices flow, make changes in a non linear fashion until the platform has become relatively stable and then shift to six sigma type approaches.