Innovation: A River Runs Through It

August 01, 2017

I spent a few years working in Paris, where the Seine River has played a pivotal role in the shaping of the city’s personality. As I stayed longer and got to know the city and its people better, one of the things that became clear to me was that the Seine River physically separated two distinct cultures of the city.

Image courtesy of www.aparisguide.com

The left bank, including the Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, and Sorbonne, is all about creativity, design and ideation. The right bank is more sophisticated and upright (or uptight), and it’s the side that gets the job done. This is where you’ll find the Champs Elysees, the Royal Palace, and most of the larger banks and businesses. The two sides cannot exist without each other, but they are culturally and physically divided by the Seine.

It struck me recently that this picture of the Seine dividing Creative from Execution can provide a helpful metaphor for the relationship of Design to Production in a different setting — product manufacturing companies all over the world. In fact, any company that innovates probably has a river that runs between its design and production functions.

I frequently talk with people on both sides of this metaphorical river. On the design side, we find the innovators, the artists, and the visionary people that bring new ideas to life by specifying requirements, or scribing annotations, or sketching images. The production side is comprised of the doers — the ones who actually craft the objects, who manufacture the goods, and who realize the value that’s been envisioned by the designers.

It is not much of a secret that there is conflict between the people on the left and those on the right. Each side is trying to meet their own objectives, which are almost always opposing. In product companies, the left side could be the new product innovation team, graphic designers, packaging designers, product designers, and 3D structural designers — all people who are rewarded for their creativity and differentiating ideas to grow the brand. The production side could include pre-press experts, procurement teams, product and packaging manufacturers, logistics providers, and printers, all of whom are rewarded for standardizing and simplifying to reduce operational costs.

The problem may not be that the teams are divided physically, but certainly in terms of their understanding of each other. For instance, Pantone Color Institute found in its 2015 survey of over 2200 designers, that 86% of designers had little to no knowledge of the manufacturability of color in their workflow. This means that these designers had never asked their production counterparts (that is, their internal “customers”) what it is they needed from a color specification to produce the desired outcome.

It’s very easy to cross over from design to production early on in the process, like at the ‘head’ of the river, to communicate a specification and receive feedback about what is and is not achievable so the spec can be adjusted. But the river widens as time goes by. As you move farther downstream, crossing back and forth becomes more treacherous. It takes longer and is costlier to change specs later in the process, downstream at the river’s mouth. It’s much better for designers to skip across the little creek at its head to understand as much about the production process as possible, so that learning can inform their designs, which will then be achievable.

The Parisians can teach us something when we look down the Seine and see the 35 bridges connecting the two sides of Paris, allowing the free-flow of people, goods and ideas back and forth. We learn that in order to maintain the vitality of the relationship between creative and execution, we must build lots of bridges from one side to the other. And these bridges are not shoddy, rusty, temporary structures; they are investments of architecture and beautifully maintained.

Unfortunately, when we interviewed dozens of product companies, we found that instead of beautiful bridges, all of these companies have roundabouts between design and production, where new products or ideas get stuck in loops (or as one executive said, “death spirals”) between designers who want something that’s new and different (such as new colors on new materials) and production professionals who say the idea can’t be achieved or is too expensive as designed. And so, ideas go back and forth, often by trial and error.

In the roundabout, the two sides debate over trade-offs that must be made between speed, quality and cost, they negotiate and try to understand what is achievable, and they define product sourcing. And between the left and right, in the roundabout, sits a tremendous amount of waste and loss of productivity. We found that just for color, companies waste 2-6 months coming to an agreement on a standard at a cost of 10% (or more) of the project.

We tend to accept that Design is disconnected from Production. Each side may even look down their noses at the other. But instead we should intentionally build bridges between the two sides, just like Paris did, to eliminate the roundabout entirely and allow the resulting fast, free-flow of ideas to streamline our innovation processes and create more integrated ways of working together.

Here are three bridges companies can build to eliminate the roundabout and work faster and better together:

  • Vibrant vision. Teams that know exactly what the goal is will be much more successful in getting there together. Be specific, bring the vision to life using color swatches, digital renderings, mockups, whatever examples it takes to create a powerful, uniting force for those who create and those who produce.
  • Digital process. When the process is digital it’s visible, and visibility results in accountability. Teams that can see the status of a step in the process or a measured color reading from their last print job build trust and alleviate suspicion. As much as possible, find digital ways to complete now-analog tasks like proofing and color formulation so the mystery is removed and trust can flourish.
  • Shared tools. Builders must use common weights and measures to bring the architect’s vision to life. Similarly, when producing packaging or printed material, it makes good sense to use the same tools as the one who designed the deliverable. Using a common color standard like Pantone and its extensions throughout the supply chain (PantoneLIVE and ColorCert) helps remove the guesswork and translation effect that can occur if you’re not speaking the same language.

What bridges will you build to strengthen the interaction and performance of your team?

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