Technological Innovations

Another area of technological leadership expected of engineering managers is in the management of technological innovation (Kumar 2012; White and Wright 2003; Dundon 2002). Technological innovation is the process by which technological ideas are generated, strengthened, and transformed into new products, processes, and services that are used to establish a marketplace advantage and foster company profitability. The following statistics were published by Pearce and Robinson (2012):

  • 1. Out of 58 initial product ideas, only 12 survive business analysis screening for compatibility with the company's mission and long-term objectives. This step uses 8% of the total development time.
  • 2. Only 7 of the 12 ideas remain after an evaluation of their potential. This step uses 9% of the total development time.
  • 3. Three of the seven remaining ideas survive after development work is completed. This step uses 41% of the total development time.
  • 4. Only two of the original ideas remain past the pilot- and field-testing involved in the commercialization step, which uses 19% of the total development time.
  • 5. Eventually, only one idea results in a commercially successful product. This step uses 23% of the total development time.

Within the product development process (see Figure 9.3), the most time-consuming and resource-intensive steps involve development and testing. Engineering managers

FIGURE 9.3

Product development process.

can make significant contributions to shorten development time and reduce costs while ensuring technical quality.

In heading up concurrent engineering teams in product development, engineering managers can excel by

  • • Asking pertinent technological questions
  • • Applying their interdisciplinary background to set technological priorities
  • • Incorporating new technologies to achieve competitive advantages and to satisfy customers' needs

Exerting strong technological leadership is where technically trained managers must shine. This is the uniquely attractive niche for engineering managers. Engineers do not have serious competition from nontechnical majors here, as it is relatively easy for engineers to learn how to manage, but not so easy for nontechnical managers to learn engineering. However, those engineering managers who cannot exercise technological leadership will be no better than nontechnical managers as far as the value added to their companies is concerned.

Innovation requires knowledge, ingenuity, and predisposition. Innovation cannot succeed without hard work. Purposeful work demands diligence, persistence, and commitment. Innovations need to be built on the company's strengths and core technologies. They should focus on opportunities that are temperamentally fit—that is, exciting and attractive to the innovators—inspiring them to do the required hard work. In addition, innovation must be market driven and focused on customers.

Engineering managers can benefit from taking a systematic approach to enhance individual innovation. Such an approach could include

  • 1. Analyzing innovative opportunities systematically, focusing on (a) the unexpected successes or failures of the company and its competitors, (b) incongruities in processes (production, distribution, and customer behavior), (c) process needs,
  • (d) changes in industry and market structures, (e) changes in demographics,
  • (f) changes in meaning and perception, and (g) new knowledge.
  • 2. Being observant (asking, looking, and listening). The types of questions to pose may include: (a) Which engineering processes or technologies from the past should be kept because they have future value? (b) What past engineering and technological practices should be modified to be more relevant? (c) What activities should be eliminated because they have no future value? (d) What needs to be performed to ensure future success?
  • 3. Recognizing that innovations must be simple and focused, application-specific to the present marketplace, and pinpointed on satisfying a need and producing an end result useful to the customers. It is not wise to innovate for the distant future markets, which may or may not materialize.
  • 4. Starting small scale and aiming at producing a series of small, but useful incremental values. Focusing on areas for which knowledge and expertise are available.

It is equally important for engineering managers to exercise leadership in fostering corporate innovations. Managing group innovation is closely linked to managing group creativity. Implementing some well-established techniques, such as those enumerated in the following list, may enhance the creativity of groups.

1. Brainstorming (for groups of 6-12 people): Many important corporate business or engineering issues may be cast in the form of problems. Examples of such issues include product design simplification, product or component cost reduction, and improvement of operations.

By using brainstorming techniques, the leader defines a specific problem and requests each participant in the group to take a turn proposing possible solutions. No criticisms are allowed during these exchanges in order not to impede the free flow of ideas. After all of the ideas are generated and recorded, the group then carefully evaluates each solution and jointly defines the best solution to the problem at hand.

As elucidated in Chapter 100, a new thinking methodology, DeepThink, suggests to engage teams, comprising of members with diversified background and experience, to exhaustively apply questions as prompts, in order to think deeper and generate ideas of increasing novelty in a multiple-round brainstorming environment. Initial outcomes of applying DeepThink have been positive.

2. Nominal group technique (small groups): The leader defines a specific problem. Each member is encouraged to generate as many written solutions as possible during the group meeting. Each member is then invited to present his or her solution and to elucidate the relevant rationale behind the proposed solution. No criticism is allowed.

After all of the proposed solutions are presented and recorded, each solution is thoroughly discussed, evaluated, and criticized. The participants are then requested to anonymously rank all of the solutions in writing. The final results are presented to management for action.

3. Delphi technique (for identifying future trends): The leader defines a specific problem and a set of questions and sends them to a panel of geographically dispersed domain experts who do not have contact with one another. Each expert then answers the questions individually and anonymously. A summary of all of the answers is documented by the leader and sent back to the experts. By reviewing the comments and the possible criticisms, the experts, again anonymously, modify their original answers. No one knows who proposed or criticized what specific solutions. The focus is on the merits of the ideas, not on the personality of those who advanced the ideas. The leader again prepares a summary and returns it to the experts, offering additional explanations and justifications. In the end, every solution is justified. Each time the experts respond to a summary, it is called a wave. After the third wave, a summary is prepared and the leader makes a forecast. This method is time-consuming, but it is particularly useful for predicting the future course that a company may take in technology and business.

Engineering managers ought to be well versed in many of these techniques to manage and promote creativity and innovation from both individuals and groups.

 
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