Three ways to improve your company’s innovation performance

Here, Ultimaker chief technology officer and co-founder, Siert Wijnia, outlines exactly how businesses can improve their innovation performance.

The UK start-up revolution shows no sign of ending. According to think tank, Centre for Entrepreneurs, just shy of 660,000 new businesses were established in the UK in 2016, up from 608,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show the UK’s productivity decreasing yet again, edging us ever closer to a lost decade of productivity growth.

One main theory behind this is that UK businesses have underinvested, or indeed may have hired staff rather than invest, in technology. Start ups are widely considered to be better at embracing digital innovation and applying new technologies. However, that does not need to be the case; neither does investment in new technology need to be a costly undertaking.

Siert Wijnia, chief technology officer and co-founder, Ultimaker, outlines how UK business can improve performance in 2018.

Step 1: Time – Set time aside for innovation

If you insist that your workforce adheres to a strict schedule, your company’s innovation performance is likely to be sidelined as focus inevitably lies more on achieving daily goals than on encouraging an innovative approach. However, if there is more leeway, there is also more time for reflection and ideas flow more freely.

Take, for example, the automotive industry: in a sector where one minute of time could cost thousands of pounds, production teams are naturally scheduled in such a way that not a second is lost. However, at Volkswagen Autoeuropa, a Portuguese production branch of Volkswagen, things are tackled differently. There, employees who assemble cars daily are also allowed time to work out ideas that contribute to faster, smarter and more efficient workflows.

Think of a practical 3D printed tool that ensures that a car window does not shift during assembly. Or a protective cap placed on the wheel to ensure that the number of scratches is dramatically reduced when the wheel nuts are tightened. At Volkswagen Autoeuropa these kinds of innovative tools have been developed by the workers themselves, using a 3D printer at their own production plant.

This means the workers can directly test the new tools, adjust them where necessary, and implement them immediately. In this way, the company has developed over a thousand different tools of this kind, and managed to save more than €325,000 in 2017.

Step 2: Technique – Make technology accessible

If you want to foster innovation, then technology needs to be accessible, not only in terms of costs but also in terms of usage. Technical tools that are intuitive to use are deployed more often and promote innovation. But what exactly does intuition and accessibility mean; what seems straightforward to one might seem complex to another.

Make sure that the tool or technology you invest in, is in context. Build advocates within the business for your technology investment who can educate those who haven’t yet developed the skills and who can overcome internal objectors.

Ensure that the technology applies to your employees’ work and that they can compare it to their current experience.

Finally, let people practice and give feedback.

Taking Volkswagen Autoeuropa again, by placing 3D printing on the production line, workers could rapidly identify opportunities for its application, test and perfect their designs in real-time; its accessibility was a key part of the cost savings and productivity increases it generated.

Step 3: Trust – Trust your employees

In companies that have been operating for a longer period of time, you often find tighter adherence to standards, and behavioural patterns that can be more difficult to change. Hierarchy, habits and protocols constrain – if not prohibit – ideas from new employees, or employees from the lower echelons of the company, from reaching the right places. And that’s a real shame.

It’s the employees themselves who work day in, day out, in production and who understand what works best when it comes to working faster, smarter and more efficiently. And don’t overlook the new employees; their views need to be heard, too. They bring invaluable experience and knowledge from other companies—that’s why they’ve been employed.

Take advantage of such a rich resource and resist the temptation to simply slot them into existing formats. Give them plenty of opportunities to share their ideas; chances are they may not feel confident enough to put their suggestions forward at the start, or they may not yet know who exactly they should approach. What would happen if these employees were given the opportunity to demonstrate their ideas?

Providing a physical example makes it instantly clear which problem it solves. An accessible 3D printer makes it possible to create prototypes without too much expense. As a manager, be open to input from every layer of the shop floor and test products wherever they will eventually be used.

Connected culture

According to a study of more than 1,000 companies by Orange, levels of innovation have increased across the majority of British businesses, with 60 per cent stating they are innovating more than ever before.

When asked if their firm asks staff for their ideas on new products and services, nearly half (47 per cent) said yes.

A quarter (25 per cent) of British bosses surveyed said support staff regularly submit ideas to improve their business, leading to unprecedented growth in business innovation from within.

According to the research, which Orange commissioned to highlight innovative working practices, businesses are attributing this surge in innovation to two factors – a drive to stay ahead of the competition with new products and services and a route to cut costs.

When questioned why their firm asked employees for their ideas, 32 per cent said it was to gain a competitive advantage over rivals and 44 per cent cite cost saving as a reason.

This new trend is having a dramatic impact on firms’ bottom lines, leading to a growth in profits. According to the research, the average businesses turned four staff suggestions into new offerings over the last 12 months. Furthermore, these suggestions generated an extra £250,000 in profit over the same period for 33 per cent of businesses surveyed.

Martin Stiven, vice president of Business at Orange said, ‘There is a new connected culture of bosses asking their whole organisation for ideas… new ideas are exactly what is needed to kick-start the economy.’

Conclusion

Time, accessible technology and trust. That these three elements are crucial not only for triggering innovation, but also for giving it a boost—both for start-ups and for existing companies.

Siert Wijnia is chief technology officer and co-founder of Ultimaker

Further reading on innovation

Related Topics

Innovation

Leave a comment