Quality methods – creating the environment for innovation

Author: Martyn Tebb

As a follow up to Susannah Clarke’s recent blog on innovation and the quality environment, Martyn Tebb, Head of PMI’s Learning Practice, uses an everyday scenario to describe how innovation can be built into the workplace.

This short blog describes a scenario which many might be familiar with – the challenge of finding time for innovation where the need to delight customers and business stakeholders in challenging conditions requires new and creative ideas. You know you need those ideas, but can’t find the time to develop them!  In this scenario innovation is less about delivering game-changing inventions or products, but more about delivering new and valued solutions for the business and its customers.

The Call for Innovation

Alice apologises again for being late to the meeting, then leaves early to make it to the third floor for the Finance Department’s monthly review, responding to emails whilst she’s in the lift. Sound familiar? Just keeping up with emails, messages, and meetings can be a struggle let alone actually doing your job.

Alice’s meeting does not go well. Business managers are not happy with the quality of service they are getting from Alice’s team. Her boss is demanding her to be innovative in solving these problems and to find an environment for her team to be creative. How can she possibly do this when her team can barely keep up with their work anyway?

What does her boss mean by innovation?

Alice gets a short break as the next meeting is across the city, a 30-minute taxi ride. Instead of immediately getting her phone out to answer emails she decides to use the time to think.

She thinks about things that are supposed to be innovations, her phone, hybrid cars, new drugs. But that cannot apply to her, she has finance processes, they issue reports and generate accounts.

What does her boss mean by a creative environment? Beanbags?

She’s seen photos of bean bags and colourful offices in creative design businesses. Maybe an away day could work, but taking that much time out just isn’t possible. What would her team do anyway, freewheel ideas for a day and see if anything useful appeared? That sounds risky.

An interesting proposition

The next meeting is a series of presentations from the department’s invoicing improvement teams. She is expecting a boring time but must show willing. Halfway through, Alice is intrigued by one of the project leaders, Mark, who is talking about how he used quality methods to gather some illuminating insights into the problem of invoice errors. He described how creative thinking helped the team to generate some innovative solutions in what seemed a very straightforward and structured way. No bean bags involved at all!

Mark described a simple agenda, a focused objective and a well-facilitated session of idea generation. In less than an hour they had generated a really great set of solutions. Could I do that she thought?

Thinking that something like this might help her improve the service to the business managers and get her boss off her back, she gets in contact with Mark.

Types of Innovation

Mark explains that in his world innovation is not about big leaps in the company’s products, although some of his colleagues do use quality methods in the research and development department. It’s about changes to existing processes used to make and deliver products or improvement to the services they provide inside and outside the business. Sometimes the changes are quite evolutionary in nature, they adapt a current service and expand its application to give the customer a range of options or reach new customers in new ways.

Sometimes the innovations are rather opportunistic where operators have a new angle on the process or they take a process or method used elsewhere and apply it in a new situation. In larger projects, the innovations can be much bigger in scope. They call them breakthrough innovations where new applications, products, services or radical redesign of processes take place.

Alice is now very interested in the quality methods Mark uses but is still worried about finding the time and environment to do it.

So how do you actually find the right environment for this to work?

The Environment for Innovation

Mark explains that the most common type of innovation he uses with the quality & improvement team is evolutionary. It is not necessarily creating a different environment in the sense of a room, but about having a structure to create space for the creativity.

The time needed is often spread across several months, breaking down the work into short meetings and workshops with a temporary team creating a quality method that is defined in several stages.

Stage One

The first stage is about understanding what needs be achieved. This helps to focus on the objectives and narrow the scope. Interestingly, it is this narrowing and focus that provides the challenge to ignite the creativity.

Stage Two

This is about using the seven quality tools to understand the current situation.

Stage Three

Stage three is about using creativity to develop innovative solutions that the team can then evaluate to select the most promising.

…and finally

The final stage is about embedding the change in our operational processes.


Alice can now see how innovation in this context could help her solve her problems and improve the service her team is delivering. It feels very tangible, professional, manageable and business-like. It may not be the next innovation in mobile phones but she can certainly innovate her service processes with this approach.

In Summary, approaches to innovation using quality methods and tools familiar to improvement and quality professionals can provide both the environment and the focus required to delight customers in new ways.

Related Learning

Learn more about the tools and methodology with our range of Lean Six Sigma courses.