Innovation as a formal management process

Want light bulbs to go off? Create a way to encourage, act on new ideas.


Show floor at the 2014 Association for Manufacturing Excellence conference in Jacksonville, Fla. Courtesy: Bob Vavra, Plant EngineeringInnovation in a manufacturing environment isn’t just a question of a light bulb going off. For some organizations, innovation means providing all employees with their own light bulb, and a way to share that light in a formal process within the organization.

That’s been the game plan at Zodiac Arresting Systems, which provides emergency stopping mechanisms for airplanes of all sizes in military and commercial applications. Rich Orner of Zodiac discussed the company’s formal strategy to collect and act on innovative ideas throughout the company at the 2014 Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) Conference in Jacksonville, Fla.

If you’re not familiar with Zodiac, it might be because their product line is so singular in the aerospace industry. Perhaps its best-known product is the mechanism to stop military jets when they land on aircraft carriers. That kind of market leadership wasn’t always a good thing. "Seven years ago, senior management determined our commercial and military arresting systems were dominant positions in the market, and as such, we had become complacent in our workplace," Orner said.

To address this issue, senior management created an innovation process. The Innovation Charter at Zodiac states the goal to: "Establish a sustainable innovation process that drives and rewards innovation throughout the company that includes a documented procedure for the capture, evaluation and storage of new ideas."

The company doesn’t restrict ideas, but it does require those ideas to have a definable benefit. Each idea is evaluated for its potential, and 6% of the ideas are acted on immediately. Another 7% go through a full six-month evaluation process before implementation. About 42% of the ideas require further information.

But it’s the process of making innovation more of a democratic process that is the big change at Zodiac. "It’s not about telling people how to innovate," Orner said. "Our employees have the expertise, but we have to encourage their creative thinking skills and we need to provide them motivation. You need to have everyone engaged. You can’t just count on engineers."

That’s an interesting thought from Orner, an engineer himself. "People tend to think innovation is just for engineers. Wrong. Anybody can innovate," said Orner, who said about 60% of ideas at Zodiac come from outside the shop floor. "We need to change how we think. Line workers should be innovators, because they face problems every day."

Besides formal training on how to submit innovative ideas, Zodiac also includes time for workers to develop their innovations. Orner said there were several keys to that process:

  • Providing workers with Internet access
  • Giving them a budget
  • Facilitate outside support ("Not all the answers are in our organization," Orner noted.)
  • Let them get away from the work cell to develop ideas
  • Keep things within the company (which protects intellectual property rights)
  • Track innovation time so that work for innovation is managed and is productive.

That last round of innovation at Zodiac produces about 250 ideas through the system. From that process, Zodiac has one new project and 10 potential projects moving forward, two new proposals for business models, and two patent applications.

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