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Innovation and the Quality Environment

Innovation – What does it look like in quality environments?​

Innovation is on the agenda for every organisation looking to grow. But innovation takes many forms, and some organisations find themselves victims of innovating in ways that aren’t productive, too costly, or are not achieving the radical improvement that they need.

This blog looks at how quality methods can provide the structure and environment required to stimulate and develop innovation in our everyday business lives so we can better serve our customers and stakeholders.

What sort of innovations do businesses experience?​

When it comes to innovation and the Quality environment, businesses experience innovations in three broad areas:

First, evolutionary innovation or ideas.​

These are often extensions of products and services a business already delivers – the innovation is a new presentation of it

Kellogg’s are a great example of this; think Corn Flakes (the original and best), Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes (sweeter and nuttier), Special K (less than 2% fat, the health-conscious cornflake), the Corn Flakes Crumb to coat your meat/fish/chicken/vegetables.  The list goes on but you get my drift.  The point is, Kellogg’s were not satisfied with the success of their original cornflake so they took steps to evolve it, to gain more customers and compete with their rivals.

Have you been innovative in extending the products and services you deliver to external and internal customers?

This evolutionary innovation needs an environment where ideas can be generated. How might you create the space for such creative work?

The second category we could call ‘opportunistic’ innovation.​

Have you read about the osteoporosis drug which also cures baldness?  Did you know that Botox, which hit the market in 2002 as a wrinkle remover, came from research into treating crossed eyes and twitching/muscle spasms?  Through the testing phases, a new application of the drug was discovered and this created a new market opportunity.

Have you been involved in developing opportunities through your products, services or processes?  Perhaps transferring methods or ideas from one part of your business to another?

Opportunistic innovation needs an environment where these opportunities can be spotted so that the discovery can become a new product or service.

The third innovation is ‘breakthrough’ innovation​

This is the development of new ideas for product or service development, or the radical redesign of processes resulting in a step change in performance.

Creating an environment where innovation is possible, in a way that is sustainable and the cost, time and energy involved is commensurate with enabling the company to survive whilst the innovation takes place, can be very challenging.  The product or service must be designed such that when brought to market it achieves the right level of quality and is commercially viable.

Remember the days when it took more than a week to receive goods ordered?  Through the radical redesign of delivery services, Amazon Prime and thousands of online shops can now deliver your goods the same or next day and if you’re a subscriber, at no extra cost.

Breakthrough innovation will only happen in an environment which is designed for this purpose.  Have you been involved in such a project or development?

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Innovation through Quality Methods​

Innovation can, and does happen in unpredictable or chaotic environments in which people are regularly firefighting, jumping to solutions without testing, risking failing to supply customers, and where processes are not in control, stable or predictable, but it’s not ideal.  Systemic innovation requires focus, structure and tools to help teams develop their ideas.  This is where quality methods can help create the right environment for the tools needed to help deliver innovation.

Let’s look at four simple stages to show how this can work.

Stage 1 – Where are we now?​

Understand where you are today.  Innovation is more likely to happen and be noticed in an environment where:

  • There are quality methods in place to measure performance
  • Your processes are in control so you can identify a change in performance
  • You can attribute a change correctly, good or bad…
  • You have data and analysis to inform decisions

In this stage, use quality tools such as Pareto charts, control charts or flowcharts to help gather useful data to understand the process, your customers, your competitors, market trends, and any other data that will support the business case for the work.  This information will help you support the context of the innovation, and provide useful insights to help define the overall goal of the innovation.

Stage 2 – Where are we going?​

Agree on which type of innovation you are working on for each project. Break down the overall goal for the innovation into practical objectives. This will help focus the innovation.

Stage 3 – How are we going to get there?​

Having established what you are aiming for, you are now in a great position to select the appropriate method/s for the innovation.


Think about using a quality improvement methodology such as structured problem solving or Lean Six Sigma to provide the overall structure.

Creative thinking methods work well here. If you are looking to extend an existing product range or service, quality methods such as TRIZ, structured idea generation, or Lateral Thinking are all great methods for evolving existing scenarios.


Create an environment and a culture in which you can notice a change, where you ‘learn to see’ what is happening in your system.

Quality tools such as Pareto diagrams, control charts, histograms, and stratification will aid you in noticing an opportunity and/or change. Continuous improvement methods will help you gather other opportunities that can be taken further to innovate products, services or processes.


By its very nature, it’s the big investment; it requires a dedicated programme, and a consistent quality method such as Design for Six Sigma, founded on PDSA with goals, roles, and responsibilities clearly articulated and agreed upon. Align the work to your organisation’s strategy – your chances of success are increased when you have leadership commitment. And, as in all forms of innovation, you must be prepared to take risks and fail.

These are not concepts typically embraced by organisations, but remember – it took James Dyson 5,127 attempts to create the bagless vacuum and Thomas Edison 50,000 experiments to develop the battery!

Stage 4 – How are we going to make it stick?

Innovation is only part of the equation. On its own, it’s no more than a great idea. Bring your creativity to life in a sustainable way through a robust implementation process.

Quality methods such as Lean Six Sigma have implementation built into the method. In other situations, planning implementation and integrating into daily process management are required.


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