Innovation, Creativity, and Line Workers

By Dr. Terri Helmlinger-Ratcliff

Do you believe that everyone is creative, in some way? Specifically, do you believe that people in your company are creative?

If not, don’t bother starting any kind of “innovation” push in your company.

This topic came up recently with some of the people who work for me, because innovation is a big area of emphasis for us in the Industrial Extension Service. Working with the national Manufacturing Extension Partnership, we’ve brought big programs like the Innovation Engineering Leadership Institute to North Carolina, and we’ve taken a number of clients through concentrated idea-generation exercises to help them discover and develop new business opportunities.

We’ve learned a little about what makes for successful innovation programs, and one thing that every single innovation program relies on, even when they don’t say it, is the creativity of the participants. If you’re going to emphasize innovation, and ask your people to come up with new ideas for the next big thing, then you’d better believe that they are creative enough to do so.

Are your people creative enough to be innovative? Do they realize it?

I suggest that they are creative, but some of them may be reluctant to show you just how creative they are.

Think about your line workers: the people who make your company’s products, or deliver your services, day-in and day-out. Have you encouraged them to be creative in their jobs? That’s rare.  Quite often, the tasks of line workers are structured in such a way that repetition and routine are required to produce uniform, high-quality results. That environment can stifle creativity.

Is it possible that the daily grind in your factory has effectively ground your workers’ creativity to dust? If so, where can you find the creativity needed to innovate?

I bet that some of your line workers are very creative — and possibly even innovative — in their off-work lives. They may play music, or paint, or take part in any of dozens of other creative pastimes. You may want to encourage them to bring those creative energies into the workplace, and if they do so they will enliven your innovation efforts.

But sometimes people’s creativity may atrophy, through disuse, neglect, or even abuse. I’m afraid that, statistically speaking, it’s probable that a few people in your company had their creativity stunted at some point in life. Perhaps it happened in school when a teacher or classmate criticized their work. Not everyone has the inner strength that a young Walt Disney had when faced with a teacher’s criticism.

As one of my IES associates related it, Disney was given an assignment in grade school to draw flowers. He drew faces on the flowers, but his teacher told him that flowers don’t have faces. How did Disney respond? He said, “Mine do.”

Let me elaborate: Disney could have given up on his creative effort and done a new drawing, a more conventional and acceptable drawing, but he remained true to his vision. How many people are able to do that in the face of rejection and criticism?

Do you have people working for you who may have started out very creative but over time gave up in order to conform to what other people expected of them? They may be reluctant to take part in your innovation enterprise, but it may good for them to try: they may find some small portion of the creativity they lost or abandoned long ago.

A more difficult question to consider — but even more important — is whether you have ever treated your employees the way that teacher treated Walt Disney. Have you ever looked at a worker’s idea and dismissed it because it wasn’t what you expected, or didn’t fit with your preconceived notions? If so, and now you call for innovation and ask your employees to come up with new ideas, can they trust you to give them full consideration?

If not, again, don’t bother starting any kind of innovation push in your company. Because not only must you have creative people in order to do much of anything innovative, but you have to trust and encourage and believe in them.

One more thing:  Beyond the difficulty we face when calling employees to be innovative if we haven’t valued novel ideas in the past, there’s another factor to consider. I alluded to it earlier when I noted that line workers’ tasks are often highly structured and repetitive. Frankly, we need the vast majority of front-line employees to continue being reliable, consistent performers within existing systems, because that’s how we maintain the consistent results that keep our customers satisfied. Some of our workers will be able to turn a critical eye on those systems and processes, and will be able to envision new operations and new products, but if some small number are unable or unwilling we should be careful not to stigmatize them over it. Because we need all of them to be at their best, we should not devalue anyone’s contributions to the innovation effort or to day-to-day production.

So, in closing: if you believe in the creativity of your people, and you’re ready to encourage your employees to bring their creativity to bear on your company’s problems, and you’re willing to entertain their ideas and suggestions with an open mind, and you can make allowances for those who are less confident in their creativity and not reject them over it, then by all means start an innovation program. We wish you tremendous success.