Delivering Innovation to Your Customers

March 1, 2009
As manufacturing continues to contract, the winds of change are blowing through the industry, with many unknowns still on the horizon—from relentless and agile competition, U.S. and world economies in a transitional phase, and the Obama leadership establishing itself, to name but a few.
Against this backdrop, the time is right to reinforce one of the foundation stones of the manufacturing industry—its ability to innovate and stay ahead of the competition. Finding the right paths to innovation is more important today than ever before. In a recent report compiled by Accenture, The Manufacturing Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers, the topic of delivering innovation to customers was found to be of paramount importance.In particular, the report identified three core imperatives to delivering innovation to your customers:• Integrate customers into your innovation process• Effectively manage the contents of your project portfolio• Manage “downstream issues” early in the process.Getting customers in on the innovation process is essential. Sometimes traditional methods work; sometimes manufacturers need to incorporate a combination of techniques to ensure that their innovation processes acknowledges customer perspectives and needs.The key is to engage customers and get actionable data and insight beyond simple customer satisfaction surveys. This can be done through a range of tactics, from in-depth customer interviews to spending time observing how different customers interact with a particular innovation at customer sites. This will allow manufacturers to listen and hear true insights and shape their innovations in the future.It is vital that a company has the ability to assess and manage which ideas and projects earn the right to enter a company’s innovation project portfolio—and how far they are permitted to progress through the development life cycle.An increasing number of manufacturers are imposing far more detailed checkpoints and analyses than in the past to vet innovation projects as they work through the pipeline. They support their efforts with a variety of evaluation, assessment and management tools, which enables them to patiently, yet dispassionately, view the ideas’ viability and likely profitability, and to manage the overall risk profile of the product and services portfolio.That said, this pruning of the portfolio is not, by any means, an automatic process, requiring simply filling in the blanks and letting a system spit out a go/no-go or continue/halt decision. There is frequently a tension between creativity, the source of innovation, and the application of rigorous tools—a conflict that needs to be mediated by informed good judgment and experience. The only way you can avoid missteps is by having the tools and education so that participants in the process understand what world you are migrating to.Manage issues earlyGetting the manufacturing and supply chain processes squared away early in the innovation life cycle is an increasingly important activity. Given market expectations and shrinking cycle times these days, investments are getting pushed closer and closer to the front end of the pipeline, so companies need to make sure that ongoing investment is warranted.Manufacturers have an obligation to explain the vision and challenges to the supply base. Suppliers not only need to understand the innovation vision, but manufacturers need to make sure the supply chain has caught up to them or can be helped to catch up.Through adopting these principles, the manufacturing industry can get back to basics, to focus on innovation not for the sake of it, but for the benefit of the customer, and ultimately, the good of the economy.James Robbins, [email protected], is North American Automotive and Industrial Equipment Industry Lead for Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company.