The quest

There's something in human nature that pushes us to always want to know about the best. From the "Car of the Year" to the Oscars, from Consumer Reports to the Fortune 500, we just keep feeding this insatiable appetite for rating things. The winners in our own version, the PLANT ENGINEERING Product of the Year Awards, are presented in this issue along with FAME Award and Shingo Prize winners.
By Richard L. Dunn, Chief Editor April 8, 2004

There’s something in human nature that pushes us to always want to know about the best. From the “Car of the Year” to the Oscars, from Consumer Reports to the Fortune 500, we just keep feeding this insatiable appetite for rating things. The winners in our own version, the PLANT ENGINEERING Product of the Year Awards, are presented in this issue along with FAME Award and Shingo Prize winners.

Right behind wondering who or what the best are, we usually want to know how they got to be the best.

A review of the winners presented in this issue reveals a couple of common traits.

First is innovation, or creativity. It’s pretty clear that these winners understand the old admonition, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” All of these winners have found ways of doing things differently, whether it’s a different design of a product or a new procedure at work. All of the products listed are innovative, either as completely new products or as useful redesigns and improvements on previous versions. Some of the Shingo Prize winners report thousands of innovations in the way they work in their plants.

The second trait is a discipline for innovation and change. Better products and better ways of doing things don’t just happen. These companies work at making changes; they’re organized to ensure improvement. They learn from others, and they use that knowledge to their own advantage. They measure and they manage innovation.

There are a number of popular methodologies for managing innovation and change, of course. Six Sigma, Kanban, Kaizen, Poka Yoke, Toyota Production System, Total Productive Maintenance, TRIZ, Lean manufacturing, and the Taguchi method are a few. There are many differences among these initiatives, but they all formalize the relentless pursuit of improvement. And it may be this sustained effort that is as important as any particular method.

The InnovationNetwork ( thinksmart.com ) offers a number of insights on what it takes to sustain the creativity side of innovation. Many of these echo the premises of the management initiatives mentioned previously. A few examples are: creating a culture that honors ideas and supports risk-taking; creating a process that organizes, focuses, and controls the implementation effort; developing a system to capture, sort, and prioritize ideas; and training and coaching your innovation and implementation team members.

Combining these concepts with the disciplines of the various continuous improvement initiatives makes for a strong program.

The quest for the best shouldn’t be a Quixotic or vicarious adventure. As the winners in this issue’s pages show us, achieving “best” status is achieved through dedicated, sustained, and disciplined efforts.

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