Tom Peters has stated, “Tomorrow’s victories will go to the masters of innovation! Period!” That's great, but the challenge is how does a company become more innovative?

A Chinese proverb says, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Innovation is no different; it should begin with a single step, preferably a small one. Too many organizations attempt large breakthroughs with massive change. Of course, the construction industry could use a few large breakthroughs to improve its performance and profitability, but the industry would be more successful attempting to achieve these breakthroughs in small steps. For example, fully implementing Lean practices throughout your company and its projects would create a breakthrough in performance and productivity. However, one of the biggest mistakes many contractors make when attempting to implement Lean is to go too fast. It may be counterintuitive, but often going slower gets the desired results faster. This is not a new concept. Toyota, who started the current Lean revolution in the 1970's, advises companies to start implementing Lean by teach employees one item at a time. Let them implement that concept, and once they have learned it, you can move to the next item.

If you attempt to download too much information all at once, people often become confused and will tend to push back. When information is provided at a pace the employees can absorb and understand it, they will be less resistance to the changes. The result when the pace is too rapid it causes frustration and confusion and the initiative often ends up being abandoned. This is no different than attempting to give someone a drink with a fire hose. Using an information fire hose is just as futile.

Further, we learn by doing, not by reading a book or attending a seminar. As a colleague of mine, Ed Anderson likes to say, "If you want to learn Lean, you need to ride the bike."

Figure: One of Ed Anderson's favorite slides

It's critical to go slow so that the workers experience success and are willing to move on to the next change. For example, attempting to teach a little leaguer how to bat by having him try to hit a Nolan Ryan's fastball would not accomplish much. In fact, the little leaguer would most likely become discouraged and quit since the game wasn't any fun. Heck, it's often not fun major leaguer to bat against Ryan as demonstrated by his seven no-hitters.

Further, it has been estimated when someone attends an 8-hour seminar, they will forget over 50 percent of the material by the next day. So how do you expect the attendees to implement "ALL" the lessons from the previous day, if they have already forgotten most of them. This causes confusion and frustration. People must experience success from their efforts if we want them to continue to implement innovation or change. Workers are no different than the little leaguer.

The implementation of Lean construction is change, but it is not innovation because the practice has been developed and is now simple being taught. In theory at least, the people instructing the students know what they are doing and understand the subject. When it's understood that the transfer of knowledge needs to go slow, it's easy to understand, it's more important to go slow with innovation because one is entering unchartered territory. Since no one knows what's will happen next, it would reckless to attempt to take huge steps into the unknown. Think about how you walk through a strange room without any light, you walk slowly while feeling your way. You don't rush head long into the room. Innovation is no different. Instead one cautiously proceeds until the environment is understood.

In reality, innovation is about failing quickly. In other words, try small things that can be evaluated quickly. They are inexpensive and quick. Since no one knows for sure what will work, it is important to try things, but it's equally important to try small things. A business can't risk huge losses on untried initiatives. However, if it wants to grow its performance, it must constantly innovate by experimenting with new ideas. That sounds fine, but where do you obtain ideas?

One of the best sources of ideas is your people. In fact, studies have revealed that when companies win awards for innovation, the majority of the ideas come from the rank and file. Also, the rank file ideas are more valuable than those that come from management. This doesn't mean that management doesn't know what it's doing. Instead, it is a reflection of the fact that those closest to the problem are in the best position to come with an innovative way to solve the problem.

A great way, to generate innovation, is through continuous improvement initiatives or Kaizen. The idea is to ask constantly everyone for their ideas on how to improve the company's processes. The employee suggestions should be ones the employee or his or her team can implement themselves. Since these initiatives are small they, cost little to try, and if they don't work, no harm has been done. Of course, it must be understood that any initiative must increase quality or productivity, or the idea will not be implemented. For those that think, it is a waste of time to focus on small or almost insignificant improvements you should reconsider. If you can save 27 seconds a day compounded daily in three years, you will double your productivity. In contrast, there are virtually no single initiative that would achieve results like that.

Okay, you decided to get help from your employees on implementing more innovation. But too often companies make a fatal mistake. A company executive makes a statement to the employees something like, "We really need to become more innovative in order to be more productive and competitive. What ideas do you have?" While that statement may sound fine, it is not how the employees hear it. The employees internalize the message as follows, "That SOB; we are busting our butts, and now they want us to work harder so they can make more money." That dialogue doesn't create motivated workers to come up with ideas.

However, if executives tried something like the following they would be more successful. "We know that management has a bunch of rules and procedures that probably drive you crazy and prevent you from doing your jobs. Therefore, we need your help in eliminating or changing those rules and procedures. Do any of you have any suggestions how we can make it easier for you to perform your job?" This dialogue creates a different response. Most workers think there are rules and procedures that can be improved. Even this approach can go slow in the beginning because the workers are skeptical that management will listen to their ideas. So the key is to allow them to try their ideas with the caveat the idea must improve productivity or quality. But management shouldn't decide if the suggestion will work or not, let the worker experiment with the idea. Once workers realize management is serious about listening to their suggestions, the workers will come up with more ideas. The only i deas, that management should veto, are ones that would negatively impact safety. In that case, management simply says, "We will not make that change, because will not sacrifice employee safety to increase productivity. Our employees are too valuable." Workers will appreciate that rejection.

In closing, it is important to make it understood that failure is not a problem. In fact, most innovation efforts fail, so you need to create a safe environment for the workers to try ideas, since no one knows what will work or will not work until it is tried. Therefore, it's important to generate as many ideas as possible. When the workers realize management appreciates their ideas, they will come forward with more and more ideas and your company will begin a journey of continuous innovation.

Ted Garrison; president of Garrison Associates, is a catalyst for change. As a consultant, author and speaker; delivers his Construction 3.0 Strategies that offer breakthrough solutions for the construction industry by focusing on critical issues in leadership, project management, strategic thinking, strategic alliances and marketing. Contact Ted at 800-861-0874 or Further information can be found at