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When You Are Innovating, Think Inside the Box

By Sayed Ifran - December 10, 2013

As someone trained in the field of decision sciences, I am encouraged to look at organizational (business) problem solving in a fairly structured way. This paradigm focuses on three questions in an objective and, indeed, a pretty straightforward manner:

1. What is the problem?
2. What are the alternatives?
3. Which alternative is the best?

The implications of this outlook are important. It forces the decision maker to explicitly define the goals or objectives, look in terms of identifying alternatives strategies, and clearly define the constraints on resources. Clearly, this warrants going the extra yard but the rewards are worth working towards for. One of the greatest advantages is that it unveils relationships or the dynamics that exist amongst entities in sharing critical resources and how those restrict their optimal utilization. Most importantly, it encourages decision makers to make informed judgments by involving the use of quantitative or accounting data that often stays dormant within the functional silos. And, as a natural extension to a progressively improving knowledge environment, this may well become the stepping stone to a knowledge-based organization. Consequently, when operations managers begin to advocate for an ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ paradigm as the ultimate panacea for organizational excellence I am dismayed at the thought of bypassing or ignoring valuable insights that can be tapped very much inside the box.

Below, I am sharing some of my thoughts after having recently come across a Harvard Business Review article that demonstrates a vivid example of how localized actions or ‘thinking inside the box’ can contribute just as profitably (and frequently) to an organization’s bottom-line for success and stability.
“A company noticed a strange anomaly: One of its manufacturing plants had a significantly lower scrap rate. A lower scrap rate implies a more-efficient manufacturing process. But what was the plant doing differently? Corporate managers went out to take a look. They found that an engineer at the division, which did injection molding, had developed a way of preprocessing the plastic pellets so that when they were fed into the system, they flowed more smoothly. The machines didn’t have to be cleaned as frequently, and there was less scrap.”

That little finding and its consequences illustrate a point that managers often overlook in their search for innovation: Sometimes it’s better to think inside the box. In principle the ‘thinking-inside-the-box’ paradigm is built around the same premise as its competing counterpart, where that premise is typically the perceived existence of unspecified boundaries. It could be fear, or doubt, or, perhaps, a culture of resistance. Or it could be a lack of encouragement or know-how. However, in a broader context the enabling mechanisms or propositions for the two philosophies are significantly different.

Thinking outside the box doesn’t preempt the imagination from looking for parallels in drastically different situations. Who could have imagined, let us say until some years ago, two ordinary individuals talking to each other and sharing real-time visuals at the same time while being thousands of miles apart? Or for that matter, having a live voice inside your car giving you step by step directions to reach your destination. Yet it was the entrepreneurial spiritedness (and some tech-savvy imagination, of course) that went on to achieve the improbable. If that be so, why not step into the unconventional domain to receive the hunches — learn about another religion; read a novel in an unfamiliar genre; draw a picture; work backwards; invite randomness; or even take a shower — if all these can help propel the imagination.

On the other hand, thinking-inside-the-box promotes a more regulated and a consistent thought process while being dictated by business objectivity in an organizational context. There is a method to the contrivance, often the symptoms being the logical precursors to the innovation. A simple product defect can be attributed to several causes: process parameters; worker performance; material imperfections; inconsistent operating procedures; steep production targets; and inadequate exchange of information among departments. My several years of experience in industrial energy conservation also corroborates this. There is no way a company can monitor and manage its energy efficiency until an energy accounting system is in place, religiously supplemented by the dissemination of derived information. Obviously, much stands to be gained as a culture of shared concern evolves with timely and thoughtful interventions.

The supply chain management paradigm has catered for, perhaps, one of the most fertile breeding grounds for thinking inside the box, in this event all the partner organizations being viewed as one extended enterprise. Concepts and practices like core competency, end-to-end optimization, postponement, vendor-managed inventory, supplier co-location, JIT 2, cross-docking, 3PL and 4PL, supplier relationship management, CRM, and performance measurement systems are some of the proven successes that have come out of collaborative efforts. While the sheer necessity of being competitive in the marketplace has provided the reason to innovate, more has come out of well-intended, well-defined, and well-calibrated initiatives nurtured within an environment of knowledge sharing, bounded rationality, and drive for excellence. Of course, thinking out of the box when called for retains its rightful place in the scheme of things.

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