I spent 15 years working with colleagues discovering, exploring and deploying new computer-based technologies that enabled higher quality, faster and more innovative creation of packaging solutions. I started the new job as someone who knew a reasonable amount about CAD, nothing about packaging and nothing about the organisational culuture. Before I had arrived they had spent several years introducing CAD and had halved the time to define a plastic packaging design. Unfortunately this meant a saving of 3 weeks in an overall time of three years from concept selection to startup of product manufacture!
We found that the organisational culture (How we do things round here" was the biggest single barrier to making radical change in the way we approached the design of new things. We made culture change an implicit part of our agenda, changed the way we talked about benefits and began to knock significant percentages off time to market.
Sitting in our local (Knutsford) library yesterday I looked at a recent copy of "New Scientist" which contained a 'Lone Voices' article about Barry Marshall, Allison George writes "As a junior doctor, Barry Marshall was so sure the medical establishment was wrong about the cause of stomach ulcers that he swallowed the bacteria he believed were to blame. It still took years to convince everyone - but it was to win him a share in a Nobel prize.
Allison George asked "Why did you discover this, not the specialists?
The article continues.
"Many people built careers on researching ulcers but they were barking up the wrong tree. It was much better for us to be coming from a position of ignorance. We didn't have a plan to find a cure for ulcers- we were simply trying to find out what these bacteria were. If people don't have an investment in the existing paradigm, they are free to invent a new one. [ I remember often reading about paradigm shifting in the 1990's and was always amused as a picture came into my mind of the old joke about shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic to get a better view of the iceberg!] .... If you know nothing about a subject, and someone comes upwith an idea, you can't tell whether the person is crazy or not. We knew we could be wrong, we were constantly thinking "What else am I missing?" At that point though I was curing people in weeks who had chronic problems with ulcers most of their lives...... when the Lancet finally used the word "cure" in 1989 we thaought that everybody must believe us know but it was another eight long years before most people in western countries were aware that H. Pylori caused ulcers. In the meantime millions of people had taken unnecessary drugs or had surgery at a cost of billions of dollars....... I was annoyed at the level of opposition to our theory...... but now I realise that it takes time for an idea to gain acceptance."
We also found that it was very hard to get from realisation that a new technology could revolutionise the quality, speed and innovativeness of not only the packaging itself, but also the way we created it.
We introduced a model that helped us frame our efforts inspite of the rejection of our excitement about a new technology
The model is based on the classic diffusion 'S' curve with a twist.
It starts with the appearance of a new technology. A few mentions of the technology in the press (buzz) will make one of our team aware that there is something out there. He/she will go and have a look, perhaps returning very excited about the possibilities. At this stage personal advocacy will be the main communication tool... with people muttering "Here comes Robin, lets hope the obsession with that new printing stuff has passed!" Eventually someone in the group will be overcome with curiosity and will say "do you think the that printing stuff will help me on this challenge I've got?" So the ball starts rolling as there grows a little patch of collaboration but still of individuals. Eventually the whole team around Robin will be enthused and collaboration spreads as they think "How can this help my present activity" . But organisationally there is still frailty in the idea about the technology and how it may be exploited. For collaboration has a range of meaning, the dictionary reveals:
Coll•ab•o•rate (kú-lab•ú-rEt1) intr.v. coll•ab•o•rat•ed, coll•ab•o•rat•ing, coll•ab•o•rates.
1. To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort
2. To cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one's country
This meant we often got unexpected feedback as people got defensive about how we were undermining their "patch".
So the next stage of using it on a live project with the full multi-functional project team is a potentially dangerous act. I often did a deal with the project manager to do a parallel excercise that will not endanger progress if the experiment goes pear shaped! It never did over a fifteen year period.
These successful interventions become the content that we can report at corporate level in case study format as a reason to roll the technology best practice out to the wider business.
An example is the adoption of SLA rapid prototyping technology. Way back in the early nineties Robin saw the first one in the UK at a show. He came back very enthusiastic about it... "It's 3-D printing" he said. It took a while for me to get my head around this but a model of the Starship Enterprise began to interest me. We created a few more representative prototypes , including a thin walled container. I showed it to a director who picked it up and to his embarrassment smashed it to pieces (early resins were very brittle). But no matter as we had found that we could get hollow models grown at a bureau in a few days, which turned out to be very useful catalysing marketing and manufacturing ( and others) to have a more constructive dialogue around the SLA Model. And the manager who smashed the model became one of our biggest advocates around the business.
The breakthrough for acceptance came when we designed a prototype dispensing system that worked very well. The design was passed to a supplier who completely redesigned it for economic mass manufacture. Unfortunately most of the golden rules for good dispensing had been broken! We were asked to help validate the new concept as tooling had to be ordered in a few days. We had only two weeks to take the engineering sketch, convert it into a 3-D CAD model and demonstrate that it would work. At this stage we always left off any attaching screwthreads to save time in modelling and growing, relying on sticky tape to attach them! We did three variations of the concept... defined by collaboration beteen the chemist whose formulation we were dispensing, the supplier and the factory. We got all models back from several SLA prototypers round the country and used high-speed video to capture the pouring characteristics. The order was placed using the best prototype as the specification and we went on, working collaboratively, to fully define the design.
So we were now spending as much money with prototypers as the annual cost of ownership but as it would be two-three times our budget we asked for extra funding and were refused. One day we wrote a macro to automatically generate a screw thread on our CAD models and on the next dispenser job put the threads on the SLA protypes so the could be screwed on to the container, validating a new sealing system. We had a visit from the Head of Corporate Engineering and Manufacture who was doing a "Grand Tour" of his domain; showed him the latest screwthreaded prototypes. He said absolutely nothing which was pretty demoralising.
An hour later my boss came in and said "I don't know what happened when he saw you lot this morning but he asked me how much an SLA machine was. I told him a quarter of a million. He said "get the capital proposal on my desk this Friday and I'll sign it off." So we did and he did.