Tech & Work

Don't let standards impede employee innovation

If users want to use one-off software tools or hardware, IT pros might want to think twice about saying "no." Jay Rollins says being too standards driven can be counterproductive to employee innovation.

If users want to use one-off software tools or hardware, IT pros might want to think twice about saying "no." Jay Rollins says being too standards driven can be counterproductive to employee innovation.

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I find it interesting when I hear my IT colleagues make a joking comment such as: "Computers would work fine if it wasn't for users!" When they do, I always try to look a little deeper to see if there is anything to these comments.

When you think about this in context, the main point is that IT standardizes the system to do certain things. We secure volume license agreements so everyone can use the same software. It's logical; we need to share documents and spreadsheets throughout the company, so we need to standardize all the applications. Then, we get mildly annoyed when some department wants to install a one-off graphic design software package.

In IT, every day we focus on providing a stable computing environment. We resist one-offs because we understand that introducing variation into a stable system can make the system unstable.

In innovative companies, standardized tools may not be the way forward when generating new ideas or prototypes for new products. For example, W. Edwards Deming used to do an exercise called the Red Bead Exercise to demonstrate the stability of predictive systems and how they can sometimes limit innovation.

Here's the setup: You have a small box. In that box, you have about 100 white plastic beads and about 20 red ones. Additionally, there is a little spatula with 10 holes on it that hold 10 beads perfectly. The point of the exercise is you have two people come up to the middle of the room, and you give each one their own box of beads and a spatula. You also bring up two more people from the audience who serve as supervisors for these workers.

The moderator acts as the CEO of the company and explains exactly how the workers should perform their tasks:

1. Hold the spatula in only one hand

2. Dip the spatula into the box

3. Remove exactly 10 white beads

"That is the process. Do not use another hand and do not deviate from this process. Perform this standard procedure exactly."

The spatula comes up with mostly white beads, as well as several red ones. The CEO writes down the number of white beads and the number of red beads (defects). One "worker" will usually have fewer red beads than the other eventually. At this point, the CEO comes down and talks to the supervisors. "You need to get your employee in line. We produce white beads. Sally pulled up 9. Your worker only pulled up 7. What seems to be the problem? We provide all the tools needed to do their job, and yet they continually pull up red beads. There must be a problem with the employee or your supervisory skills. Fix it or you are fired."

The exercise points out very succinctly that empowering the worker to come up with a way to do their job better will produce the desired results. Some folks will dip the spatula in and pick off red beads; others will go through the entire box of beads and take out all of the red ones first. You get the idea.

The lesson I get from this is not to be too strict with "foreign" software tools or hardware. Being too standards driven can be counterproductive when it comes to employee innovation. IT can add value to the business by providing an environment to allow for innovation instead of putting up another roadblock.

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