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Columnist Jack West

Photo:  Jack West


When Two Titans Collide

Quality and innovation don't have to work against one another.




You hear a lot about innovation these days. It's touted as the magic wand of successful organizations. You hear about its importance in developing new products and services. You hear about innovative ways to make management systems more effective and efficient.

You also hear a great deal about standards. They're all around us. Most readers know about ISO 9001, and many frequently use equipment that meets the IEEE 801.11g wireless communications standard--just as I'm doing to write this column. Stand-ards are good things. They enable us to design compatible products so critical tools like our computers can work together. They help provide a level playing field for commerce. Many standards make our lives safer by establishing minimum requirements needed to ensure product safety.

Admittedly, standards can hamper our ability to innovate. For example, a good idea might be rejected because it might not comply with an applicable product standard. Or a change to the management system that seems an imminently good idea might be rejected because it doesn't comply with ISO 9001. Most of us have heard the warning, "If you do that, we'll lose our certification to ISO 9001."

So, yes, standards can inhibit innovation, but what does that mean?

Innovation can be defined as introducing something new, such as an idea, method, serv-ice or device. Innovation implies change, and it also implies improvement. I define innovation as a new idea that's been implemented and makes a change for the better.

An idea isn't an innovation in itself. For innovation to happen, the idea must be new and, perhaps most important of all, put into actual practice.

Innovative people tend to be curious and want to understand the world around them. They want to know more about the processes that affect their lives and work. They focus on finding new ways of doing things that add value. They constantly think about ways to make things better, and they experiment with ways to get their improvement ideas implemented.

In the article "Cultivating the Habit of Innovation," which appears online at www.corpchange.com/archives/article_archives/a14_cultivating_habits/a14_cultivating_habits.html, Jim Canterucci discusses the late, great and well-known innovator Charles Schultz: "The Peanuts comic strip resonates with a broad audience, thanks largely to his awareness of everything from applied psychology to the way adults sound to children," Canterucci writes. "Extreme focus is apparent in the unforgettable characters and stories he created. And he had the initiative to persevere when an editor decided to stop publishing his comic strip five decades ago--and to continue touching lives long after he could have retired. His daughter said it was no coincidence that he died just as his final strip was being published."

A boss of mine once told me that there are two ways to get ahead: Be smart or work hard. That was a long time ago, but there have always been right and wrong ways to do these two things.

Be smart:

  • Right way--know what to do and
    help others get it done by providing
  • Wrong way--know how to beat the
    system and get others to cheat for you

Work hard:

  • Right way--work hard to improve
    everything around you and benefit
    from it
  • Wrong way--work only to enhance
    your own life


In today's working environment, we need the right kind of "smarts" and correctly focused hard work. The most important of the two is probably the same today as it was in Thomas A. Edison's time, when he famously observed, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

So perhaps the key to innovation in today's world is unrelenting, focused action to implement new ideas in ways that enhance rather than hamper conformity with the standards we must meet. Even Charles Schultz had constraints, and not just his editors. He was constrained by the requirement to appeal to all ages--quite a daunting task.

Fear of failure is a restraint we all face and a major reason we don't try out new things. This fear is likely to be a bigger constraint than fear of violating a standard. Another quote from Edison points out that if we quit, we make failure certain: "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

Most of the time there are many small failures on the way to big success. Innovation, whether it's related to products and services or a quality management system, requires hard work and long-term commitment. There's no other way to achieve it. Organizations opting for the easiest way to comply with a standard are likely to be disappointed with the results. Passionate focus and work are necessary to meet the requirements in ways that surpass other organizations' methods.

About the author
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. He is chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards.