Not long ago, I was given the opportunity to share some insights with leaders of Middle Market Manufacturing companies, all of whom had invested time and money to converge in downtown Detroit – the historical hub of Midwest manufacturing prowess – for a summit focused on leaning into change and innovation. Before I started my presentation, I was curious to know who was in the audience, so I asked for a show of hands with this question:
How many of you have invested in the training and rigor associated with the well-known process of “Lean Manufacturing?” As expected, 90 percent or more of the 300 attendees raised their hands. I asked the question again, this time referring to an even better process, called “Human-Centered Design (HCD).” Not a single hand went up. At that moment, I saw an opportunity to challenge their thinking and was excited to do so.
It also reminded me of a quote that a colleague sent me about the importance of innovation: Somewhere in a garage an entrepreneur is forging a bullet with your name on it. Sharpen your axe.
When that colleague told me the company that forged these provocative lines of copy is no longer in business, I saw it as an ironic cautionary tale. Competition is real and disruptors are coming. But how much of this do we disregard as just talk? How many of us believe our own hype, our own projections, and our ability to exceed expectations year after year without doing things differently? Has the 10-year economic growth cycle caused us to become complacent or too comfortable?
After reflecting on the experience in Detroit and this bold quote about innovation, it prompted me to start asking leaders a simple question intended to challenge the way their companies do business – “Where’s your shed?”
SO, WHY A GARAGE OR A SHED?
Garages and sheds are notorious for harboring tools, unused parts, piles of assorted screws, bolts, nuts, scraps of wood, and other stuff that have simply accumulated over time. Regardless of if you’re handy or not, if you had to make something – anything – from the pieces and parts in the shed, if your job depended on it, could you?
The answer should be obvious, so shouldn’t it be equally as obvious that every company, regardless of the size or industry, would have its own version of a shed? A shed being a place where really smart and talented people convene to make something – anything – as if their jobs depended on it. Because it does. In fact here are some of the most well-known companies that started in a garage.
WAR ROOMS BUT NO SHEDS?
Many companies have a conference room dubbed the “War Room.” But if we’re being honest, to name a conference room the War Room assumes the worst. When it comes to innovation and acceleration, few give enough thought to having a dedicated space, like a shed, for innovative thinking and creating. I have a theory and a recommendation: the theory is if companies allow their best and brightest to spend some time in the shed, then leadership will do a lot less hand-wringing in the War Room. Which leads to my recommendation: convert your War Room into a shed, or designate a specific space within your corporation for your shed activity.
WHAT GOES INTO THE SHED?
A shed space is going to be different for every company depending on what it makes or offers, which means designing the space is more intuitive than prescriptive. However, this is not the ping-pong table and bean-bag variety of innovative spaces, nor is it yesteryear’s R&D facility. It should be a place that people want to spend time and where collaboration between teammates naturally takes place. In our shed, whiteboard walls and sticky notes provide a way for our team to imagine and document new ideas as they come. At our tech bench, you will find the necessary gear and collaboration for our engineers to imagine and iterate on new designs and customized technology solutions. Providing a space to promote personal wellness like sit-stand desks, natural light, even plants will help attract top talent and keep your people feeling energized. Whatever is in your shed, make sure it is only filled with parts and tools that will stimulate imagination, fresh thinking, agility and collaboration.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE SHED?
Prototyping happens here. Teams who say – if we could do it over, this is what we’d change – can actually demonstrate what they mean. It is where digital innovations can come alive for the first time alongside new product development. It’s a place to experiment, deconstruct or reverse engineer what you’ve already built. It can – and should – get messy. It is a place that facilitates interaction and literally being “on your toes” instead of creating a space that fosters another sedentary workspace. The shed is always open for bringing in and exploring new ideas, and for applying new techniques in unexpected ways. It’s a place to fail without fear of failure. A shed is not simply focused on operational excellence and short-term thinking like lean manufacturing. But rather discovering what is possible, finding new ways to unlock value, and then analyzing the best new concept to create and develop using the HCD framework.
WILL PEOPLE ACTUALLY UTILIZE THE SHED?
The short answer is every business. Developing “What’s Next” is the truest form of business planning. Some companies already subscribe to the shed mindset and should keep devoting time to it. For everyone else, I believe there are two likely scenarios where companies fit.
WHO NEEDS A SHED RIGHT NOW?
The short answer is every business, which inevitably invites pushback. Some companies already subscribe to the shed mindset and should keep spending time in it. For everyone else, I believe there are two likely scenarios where companies fit.
1. Companies that don’t need to change – but should. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s commodity. When the people on your team begin to think this way, you realize standing still is not an option. But many successful companies are operating companies, meaning that it is about the continuous turning of the crank to churn out profits (not actual growth) until the crank stops working. Too many companies fail to acknowledge the lifecycle of a product – sunrise, to high noon, to sunset. The fallacy is in believing that it is always high noon, so just keep cranking. High noon is the ideal time to look outside of your core offerings and explore adjacent and transformational work as part of the Innovation Ambition Matrix. If sunset is coming, what are you planning for your next sunrise to look like?
2. Companies that are being outperformed. Those who do the same things year after year reap the same outcomes. If your company is underperforming, this is a wake-up call to change, infuse a human-centered design approach, understand what your customers want, and then build it, test it, and iterate it. It’s about becoming disciplined on process. It requires painting a new target and practicing on hitting the mark. This way when you’re ready to take your shot, you’ll know it will be a strategic one instead of a random stab in the dark. It’s the difference between out-performing and being outperformed.
Dan Markovitz, a proponent of Lean Manufacturing, penned a recent IndustryWeek article with a premise that suggests We Really Need to Stop Talking About Lean. I agree with his sentiments, but I also think we need to push our legacy and modern companies harder. Lean is a management process. HCD is a growth and innovation process. But here is the point of tension and the clear call for adopting HCD as part of your business strategy: if you haven’t developed the right products and services, in time there will be nothing to manage. Here’s another way to look at these contrasting processes: Lean Manufacturing is a process of operational excellence to secure the present. HCD is a process of innovation excellence to secures the future. There needs to be room for both if companies want to play the long game.
What has served companies well for decades will not be applicable in the decade ahead. Companies will have to think about and develop revenue streams that extend beyond their core work. The rapid change of technology has created a heightened sense of urgency and companies that want to compete cannot rest on yesterday’s successes.
Public companies owe it to their shareholders to have a shed and to be constantly working on an agenda to answer the question “What’s Next?” to meet the demand for growth – or else what happens next becomes highly unpleasant. But all companies, public or private, owe it to their people and their customers to be forward thinking, to remain highly relevant, and to be the company and brand that people want to be associated with. Without the shed, companies could find themselves shedding valuable staff and loyal customers against their will.
If you don’t yet have a shed, then consider this an open invitation to come visit our shed, to see what we’re building. My hope is that it will inspire you to make room for a shed, a necessary place where the next great ideas get built and come to life.