Innovation Excellence Over Operational Excellence
Managing Partner, Twisthink
Neil C. Hughes
Tech Columnist & Podcaster
The Tech Talks Daily Podcast with Neil C. Hughes
Hello, Tech Talks Daily Podcast listeners!
Twisthink’s Managing Partner, Bob Niemiec, had the opportunity to re-connect with Neil Hughes on The Tech Talks Daily Podcast. Listen in as they discuss the importance of focusing on innovation excellence over operational excellence. Why it’s important for business leaders to lean into change in today’s digital age and why design thinking is a proven process for creating successful IoT or AI solutions.
Bob Niemiec shares digital stories of innovation that unlocked new business value (including industries like healthcare, industrial, residential, automotive and manufacturing). And the power of a cross-functional team that contains both left-brain and right-brain thinkers. You can find the resources mentioned on the interview down below.
Make sure to look around the site to learn more and see the newest resources available. And if you want to connect with Bob Niemiec on some of the topics discussed, fill out the form, and he would welcome the opportunity to connect.
Welcome to the Tech Talks Daily Podcast, where you can learn and be inspired by real world examples of how technology is transforming businesses and reshaping industries in a language everyone can understand. Here is your host, Neil C. Hughes.
Neil C. Hughes 0:20
Welcome back to the Tech Talks Daily podcast. I’m quite excited to get today’s podcast guests on because we have not spoken in over four years. Don’t worry, we’ve not had a falling out or anything like that. It’s just that our first podcast recording was way back on episode 256. But as we head towards 1100 interviews, I think we’re long overdue a catch up chat. And one of the reasons I love chatting with him is despite waiting for me in Holland, Michigan in the US, one of the things I remember vividly from our conversation was that he used to live near me in Hampton upon Arden in the West Midlands, and even went to see a football match and go to watch Walsall FC, which let me tell you, it’s the closest you’re likely to get to a grassroots authentic football experience. Outside of all that, though, Robert is the Managing Partner at Twisthink where he manages business strategy, day to day team leadership and business development. But it was in 2001, where Robert created Twisthink, which was an experiment to test the belief in the valley with twisting together the skills of design and technology for the purpose of innovation. And for nearly two decades, Robert has been leading his team to serve Fortune 500 clients, as well as entrepreneurial startups with speed and excellence. And some of the huge clients include Whirlpool, Stryker, Herman Miller, Crown Equipment, Lutron, there’s just so many I could go on and on. But it’s his unique background and perspective to the world of digital innovation, which I always found intriguing. And also his unique ability to understand stakeholders, unique problems, unmet needs, goals and constraints. So as my book on innovation is just coming out, I figured it was time that we chat some more with my friend, Robert. So come and join us both in Holland, Michigan, where Robert’s waiting to speak with is now
So massive, warm welcome back to the show. It’s been four years since we last spoke. So can you just remind everybody listening a little more about who you are, and what you do?
Bob Niemiec 2:35
Well, my name is Bob Niemiec. And I’m a part of a team in the great state of Michigan by the name of Twisthink. And Twisthink is a 19 year old firm, that has been running hard in a variety of markets with a variety of clients, both entrepreneurial startups to Fortune 500, Fortune 100, but primarily companies who are looking to innovate, accelerate and grow. So we’re a professional service firm. And we’ve enjoyed a great run in, in that domain of using the skills of our team, which is a unique combination of industrial design. So design, coupled side by side with what we would call broadly as technologists, but more specifically, electronic engineers. And those two skills generally speaking, it’s been my experience or our collective experience that those two skills rarely are locked arm and arm, in the same workspace, and in the same kind of environment. And that’s what we’ve been harnessing the energy of those skills during our 19 year run, trying to help companies get the market faster and get the market faster with great user experiences linked to technology.
Neil C. Hughes 4:19
And since we last spoke, this podcast is now gone daily, and we’re still exploring how technology is transforming multiple industries. But like I said, a few moments ago, Twisthink first appeared on my radar four years ago in our conversation, but just for new listeners, just to kind of set the scene for nearly two decades, the Twisthink team has consistently unlocked game changing opportunities for your clients in a broad range of markets. And what I also find exciting is you’re not tethered to industry paradigms or mired by day to day constraints of any industry. So can you bring the listeners of john this show since our last chat with Twisthink can your good self they’re a little bit more about exactly the kind of problems that you’re solving for your customers.
Bob Niemiec 5:00
When we last spoke, we were on the cusp of this breaking megatrend known as digital transformation. And quite honestly, that that space of digital or connectivity has been a key foundation within our business, since we started in 2001. But certainly, and I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you, nor your listeners, in the last four years, the momentum building behind that megatrend disrupting every organization, whether it’s a great manufacturing firm or a great service provider, I think we’d all kind of nod our heads up and down and testify that there’s great change, and great opportunity coming from that trend. And so I think when we connected again, I can’t believe it’s four years ago, but four years ago, we were, we were talking around the topic of Internet of Things, and no surprise, whether we use that three letter acronym of IoT, or now maybe transforming it into AI IoT, or broadly, more broadly, digital or digital transformation, that space is generating great opportunity. And it aligns really well with the skills of design, technology and strategy. So for us, though, maybe we weren’t smart enough to map this out, when we first kicked the ball into play in 2001. We’ve seen classically over the years that digital transformation and having great user experiences linked to technical feasibility is driving our business in a real positive way. And innovation is a huge hot topic at the moment.
Neil C. Hughes 7:20
So can I also ask that you tell me a little bit more about the importance of focusing on innovation excellence now over operational excellence? I think that’s a big theme that’s changed since we last spoke as well, isn’t it?
“lean manufacturing is all about pursuing operational excellence today. Human Centered Design as a process is all about pursuing innovation excellence for the future”
Bob Niemiec 7:32
It is, in fact, you know, you remind, you remind me, I spoke at a conference in downtown Detroit in October, sponsored by an accounting firm, and you can go to our website to see video and, and hear the whole story. But here’s an accounting firm that was a gathering a summit of influencers and leaders together, as even they were recognizing that there’s need for more innovation within the manufacturing arena is, is a is a necessary battle cry and one worthy of supporting and promoting. And so at that event, I was simply trying to make that audience aware of Hey, there’s a process that we’ve all been exposed to. And it’s one called lean manufacturing. It’s a proven process. It’s got, key stage gates are steps within the process like processes, standard processes, quality, waste reduction, continuous improvement, those are all important to an organization who’s operationally trying to remain relevant and excellent. But my point was to then introduce them to and no surprise an audience with hundreds of people representing a variety of companies sitting there when I asked them the question of Hey, raise your hand if you or your company have invested in another great process, one that can generate more value and ultimately more growth. And this process is known as Human Centered Design, the audience sat still meaning nobody raised their hand saying that their organization or they as a leader within their organization, had experience in that process. So it gave me a great opportunity to, again appropriately identify that lean manufacturing is all about pursuing operational excellence today. Human Centered Design as a process is all about pursuing innovation excellence for the future. And smart companies don’t just lean on one, they appropriately and wisely weave both approaches both methodologies into the culture of their organization. So it’s quite interesting to me lean manufacturing is very much a left brain analytical linear approach. And Yep, when, when an organization embraces it, it can deliver great results to that company, especially in the short term of that company. But Human Centered Design, as I mentioned, already a few of the stage gates on the lean side, well, there’s four processes or four steps within the process of HCD, discover, analyze, create, and develop. And there’s tools and or methods that can be appropriately deployed in each of those four stage gates that would allow an organization to ultimately innovate. And I guess the point of that presentation in October, and even referencing that briefly, Neil in this call, is to try and raise the awareness and encourage any organization large or small, that that’s a process worth embracing to, it will deliver results, if an organization leans into it, and takes it seriously. So where lean is very much left brain brought bias, I would argue Human Centered Design is more right brain bias and the skills of imagination and the skills of creativity are exercised in the HCD domain. But I think more importantly, or just a pile on, when we think about digital transformation, and companies having that on their strategic roadmap, I would argue that this process is uniquely skilled at mining, what the user experience is going to be. In fact, we you know, we live in a in an age where it’s not, you know, kind of industrial age. And it’s not even the technology age any longer. I think we live in the age of user experience, and digital transformation and cannot collecting data and analyzing it, and then presenting that data to various key stakeholders in a way that’s intuitive, and informative. That’s the environment that I think digital is really opening up today. And HCD is the process that will allow you to paint the target and hit the bull’s eye. From a user experience perspective, companies are wise to use that process to drive their digital strategy.
Neil C. Hughes 13:38
They really are and other conversations I’m hearing more and more at the moment is about transformational change, and how it’s moving at breakneck speed and how businesses are struggling to keep up with that pace. But of course, the reality is it’s never going to be moving this slow again, because it’s just getting faster and faster. So with that in mind, why do you think it’s so important for business leaders to lean into change in today’s digital age, rather than just fight it? Of course.
“most if not all, companies would argue that they are innovative, the proof points in terms of leadership, alignment, culture, and a clearly defined process that drives serious innovation there, their data indicated that only 9% of those 5000 Plus, were actually above the waterline in the space of innovation or innovative air.”
Bob Niemiec 14:05
Right? I think the reality is if if, if you don’t lean into it, you’re going to be left behind. Because though you may not be leaning into it. There’s an entrepreneur out there, or there’s a competitor out there that is that is leaning into it. So the ability, the cost of entry into any market into any product into any service that that bar, in this digital age has, again been lowered to a degree where I don’t think any company is safe. And so leaders need to lean into change. But let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s hard. And it gets even harder when you have a global economy where really on just about every front growth has been the battle cry over the last decade plus. So there can be a tendency when, when you’re in a growing economy to just want to keep your hand on the crank, and turn it faster. And I think, again, that’s where operational excellence can, and lean as a process can can deliver great results in that, in that arena of somebody turning the crank, or welcoming more service opportunities. But companies that are doing that within their core are also wise to also use another tool to try and identify how to stay ahead of the competition. How to deploy a technology in a way that really is we would say, a smile is the innovation techometer. And so, you know, thinking about data that can be collected, so that smiles can be generated with key stakeholders is, is is a worthwhile goal. But it’s hard, you know, changes is difficult. For every organization. It’s why Harvard Business Review did a comprehensive survey, I think in 2016, maybe around the last time we spoke, we spoke Neil and they they spoke to over 5000 public and private companies in North America, and came back with the data that would say though, most if not all, companies would argue that they are innovative, the proof points in terms of leadership, alignment, culture, and a clearly defined process that drives serious innovation there, their data indicated that only 9% of those 5000 Plus, were actually above the waterline in the space of innovation or innovative air. And so you’re like, wow, only 9%. But that just hints at the reality of how hard it is for for leaders and companies to rally behind it and lean into it for the long haul.
Neil C. Hughes 17:35
Absolutely. And another mess, of course, is that only a few people are creative in an organization. And then there are those people that sit on multicolored beanbags playing ping pong and don’t wear socks. But the reality, of course, is everyone is creative and an organization. So can you tell me more about why design thinking is a proven process for creating successful IoT or even AI solutions too?
“the broad term of innovation is directed many times at at the product, but also can be directed at the business model.”
Bob Niemiec 18:00
Well design thinking as premise, you know, I referenced earlier, the four, kind of the four phases of Human Centered Design and design thinking is really could be characterized that looking at any problem through three lenses. And these three lenses one would be as I’ve already referenced earlier, user experience usability, desirability, that’s a key key lens to be to study any problem or opportunity with. But technical feasibility is a another key element for consideration. And then the third lens is that of business viability. And so companies are wise when they deploy design thinking and deploy a process to actually study either pain points of stakeholders or technological opportunities that may be on the table when they balance all three of those lenses. They most often land on a innovative solution. And just a comment on that last lens business viability. The challenge today with the domain of digital transformation is many leaders are trying to understand, okay, if we stand up this IoT platform to create this new user experience, where’s the coin slot, Human Centered Design as a process will allow you to clearly identify the coin slot before you spend the the development dollars to stand up that IoT platform. And I think again, that’s that’s a key element in this Digital Transformation age that we’re all trying to grow. And that’s a, that’s key element that sometimes gets overlooked. When when the word innovation is thrown around many times, our minds immediately go to what the blinking widget is now going to be able to do to make my life a little bit better. But, and that’s okay, that is a viable area for consideration. But I think there are other considerations like business model innovation, that, again, are coming to life, when you have digital digital technology, creating opportunity. So I just want to encourage the broad term of innovation is directed many times at at the product, but also can be directed at the business model.
Neil C. Hughes 21:02
And I’m curious, so why do you think that this digital age is the most intriguing place for product innovation to occur right now? And also, what is it that excites you about that?
Bob Niemiec 21:12
I think, you know, Vince Lombardi, we’re in the football season here in, in the United States, the Super Bowl is on the horizon, there’s a great quote from a great coach that says the joy is in the creating, not maintaining. And I think this digital age that we live in, really plays off of the opportunity it brings to any organization, the opportunity to create new user experiences for the primary or the secondary, or even the tertiary stakeholders that that firm is running after to serve. So it’s a game changer, and allowing a company that perhaps has been under the waterline, for some time in the space of commodity, to reposition themselves and get above the waterline in this era of innovation. And in a world where they can create new experiences.
Neil C. Hughes 22:20
Fantastic. And do you have any digital stories of innovation and actually have gone on to unlock new business value that you could possibly share with us today.
“Limelight is a internet of things based platform deployed on lights in public outdoor spaces, such as a parking lot, or city park, or the exciting space of a parking garage, those lights are now managed and controlled by the municipality in a way that saves energy, saves money in providing maintenance to the lights.”
Bob Niemiec 22:30
One is certainly in, I think, three years ago, it was released, our client was in the contract, furniture arena, it’s a brand that is known globally by the name of Herman Miller. And I give that organization and the leaders of that organization a lot of credit that some four or five years ago, they planted a flag and said we are going to drive digital into into our product portfolio, for the good of our, our customers and our stakeholders. And we serve them over a period of time and in the seats 2020. So in 2017, they launched their first product that really was a great combination of the mechanical furniture that they’ve been producing for years. And it has a it has a technology edge to it now. So they have product that is speaking and promoting this digital age. And it’s bringing benefit to the users of the furniture, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also bringing benefit to facility managers on corporate campuses, and health and wellness managers on those same corporate campuses. So it’s a it’s a great story of satisfying a number of key stakeholders through digital information and digital connectivity. And that products known as Smart OS within the Herman Miller portfolio, so that’s one and then the other is really one near and dear to my heart because it’s a technology that the team here created back in 2008. And we launched a separate company to promote a product that we had developed called Limelight. And Limelight is a internet of things based platform deployed on lights in public outdoor spaces, such as a parking lot, or city park, or the exciting space of a parking garage, those lights are now managed and controlled by the municipality in a way that saves energy, saves money in providing maintenance to the lights. And there’s even a safety component to that technology, and how it enhances safety in somewhat vulnerable spaces like a parking garage. And so that product is one that we brought to the marketplace in 2009. And 10 years later, it was still growing and dominating the outdoor space and was ultimately acquired by a great company on the East Coast known as Lutron. So our product in the marketplace today is now branded Limelight by Lutron. And they’re continuing to actually grow that grow that technology and to grow it globally. So we’re excited to see our endeavor, appropriately handed off to another great company.
Neil C. Hughes 26:24
And some of the most successful companies today, especially in the world of tech all began in a shed. So whether you were a Fortune 500, or a startup, that seems to be the rule. So apologies for the random question here. But where’s your shed? Do you still have one?
“space has a huge impact on the creative spirit and the imagination and for teams to actually innovate.”
Bob Niemiec 26:39
Yeah, we, we still have a shed, and I’m speaking to you in it. Meaning our space is very much a shed environment for all of the clients that we serve. And I appreciate your question. And, and we have a blog post that has recently hit the wire that is really promoting the value of organizations answering the question, Where’s Your Shed? And, you know, we’re where we are likening to you know, we are historically going back to all the great companies that have started in a garage like environment. And whether you’re a startup today or your proven well established firm today, creating a shed-like environment, even down to the kind of the atmosphere of the space. And by no means am I promoting beanbags or ping pong tables. But we do know that space has a huge impact on the creative spirit and the imagination and for teams to actually innovate. And so the actual space as well as the reality of so often companies struggle with innovation. And when you really get into why that is, I think there is an element where they’re relying on their existing teams to kind of operationally keep the company humming, while they also try and kind of squeeze in some level of innovation. And I think, you know, what, what, what what you hear is, you know, a company’s culture many times will, quote unquote, consume its own innovative thoughts and ideas and not allowing them time to truly grow and take root. And that great leader that we all respect, Jeff Bezos, you know, has said many times, in order for innovative, innovative ideas to bear fruit, you need to be willing to wait five years. And most companies don’t have that time horizon. A shed space is intended to provide a little bit of protection, so that those innovative ideas can actually start to grow and take root so that down the road, they have a they have a chance at effectively transforming the marketplace, and even culturally transforming the company in which they’re growing.
Neil C. Hughes 29:34
Now, although this is a tech podcast, we have talked a lot about tech. I’m also passionate about the human element beyond the success of any company. So can you tell me why you believe in the power of cross functional teams that contain both the left brain and the right brain thinkers because it’s such a forward thinking approach that you’ve got here?
Bob Niemiec 29:53
Yeah, we’ve been doing it for 19 years, and I believe it’s why we’ve remained relevant 19 years later. And there is though it takes work and it takes time to build the team culture that would allow those skills to actually benefit from each other. We all know the power of diversity. And I say that that term broadly in terms of even the makeup of a team and having diversity there is we just, you know, totally embrace. And so they have diversity in thought, and diversity in process. So to have a really creative, right brained, catalyst, linked with a really creative, very linear left brain algorithms, software, firmware, hardware minded talent, that’s, that’s where, when you have those two pulling together, that’s where I guess we would, we’ve proven, that’s where innovation and innovative results are naturally, are naturally born out. There’s, there’s something about that, that healthy wrestling, or continuous struggle that comes from that diverse team, working on hard problems together. And so you know, there’s, there’s a, there’s a sense, especially in the early years of the business, where, you know, each each side of the of the team was learning each other’s thought process and creative process. And once that’s understood by by both sides, in a sense, that’s, that’s where the energy come from. And you know, earlier I was talking about Human Centered Design and design thinking, I think you appropriately referenced, you know, those are skills that all of our industrial designers and user experience creators are exposed to in in their education process. But we’ve trained our entire team on that process, and the methods and the tools and quite honestly, some of our best promoters and even instructors in helping our clients understand how to work through HCD come from technical minds.
Neil C. Hughes 32:29
What a huge thanks for coming back on the podcast to join me today. But before I do let you go, can I just ask that you remind everyone listening of where they can find Twisthink online? And also contact your team if they’re left with any questions?
Bob Niemiec 32:41
Sure. So it’s twisthink.com/techtalksdaily. And, and the reminder again, Neal, to you and your listeners is Twisthink only has one T in the middle. So it’s TWISTHINK. But you should be able to find us, we’d love to continue the conversation as we continue to sprint through 2020 and beyond.
Neil C. Hughes 33:12
Well, it’s absolute pleasure to have you back on today. We’ve got to make us both I’ve got to make each other a promise that we don’t leave it for years until we speak again. And hopefully the next time we do meet, we can meet in person. However, we’ll have a warm beer if you’re in the UK and a cold beer if we’re over there in the US. How’s that sound?
Bob Niemiec 33:30
That’s a great deal. And I’m putting that down as my 2020 goal.
Neil C. Hughes 33:36
Well, I’ll add it to my goal list as well, and we’ll make that happen.
Bob Niemiec 33:40
Neil C. Hughes 33:41
Thanks. Thanks so much, Bob.
I generally hope I get to meet Robert in person because he is just an all around great guy that I could just chat to for hours over a warm or cold beer. I don’t need to buy my Walsall FC football shirt too don’t I? But there was so much value in today’s conversation. We’ve covered so much ground, including the importance of focusing on innovation excellence, over operational excellence, and also why it’s important for business leaders to lean into change in today’s digital age. Not to mention, of course, why design thinking is a proven process for creating successful IoT, or AI solutions. And what a digital age is actually the most intriguing place for product innovation to occur. That’s just a few things that I’m running off the top of my head, but over to you. What did you like about today’s episode? Was there anything that you’d like to bring to today’s conversation? Would you like to just ask me a question? Or would you even like to come on the show and talk innovation with me? Whatever it is, please email me email@example.com. You can tweet me @NealCHughes. In fact, all social channels. I’m @NealCHughes. If you want to work with me read more about my book that’s coming out, go over to my website, techblogwriter.co.uk. But we’re at a time I’m afraid. So a big thank you for listening as always. And I’ll see you same time, same place tomorrow, where we’ll have another guest lined up to speak with us. So until next time, don’t be a stranger.
Thank you for listening to the tech talks daily podcast with Neil C. Hughes. Remember, technology works best when it brings people together.