Constraints Push Innovation

This Ted Talk by Amos Winter is about a fantastic project to develop an inexpensive, rugged, rough-terrain wheelchair for people in countries with much less infrastructure than we take for granted in the U.S. and Europe.

Though they didn’t follow the traditional “3P” approach, their project did reveal a few key elements. More below the video.

What Winter talks about as constraints:

  • Cost < $200
  • Parts readily available
  • Repairable by local trades (bicycle shops)

we could also talk about as a “target condition.”

Winter describes an iterative design process where the first two attempts failed once they got them into the hands of actual users. A valuable lesson – the only true “voice of the customer” is the customer!

The “Marshmallow Challenge” (in the link back above) describes the power of an iterative process within a constrained design space as well – though the most rapid learning occurs in a group that may surprise you.

A company I worked for got a challenge from Mr. Nakao of Shingijutsu: “Make your next year of aggressive growth with:

  • No more people.
  • No more space.
  • No more money (capital).

In other words, squeeze it out of the waste that is all around you. That was a year of intense learning for all of us, but even today that company has one of the highest value-add per unit of area I have seen in any plant, with operations reaching inventory turns in mid-to-high double digits.

The experience of “constraints driving innovation” also plays out in a client project I have been involved with. They set out a challenge for themselves that was very aggressive – an order of magnitude difference from their current baseline. Then they set out to meet that challenge.

Past history (they tell me) has been to routinely break the “constraints” in these projects, but this time around they are sticking to their own rules.

What has emerged a large wall covered with major sub-goals, each with its criteria (the target condition), the current level of performance, the gap, the next trial they expect to run, the expected result.

They have been working hard to try to reduce the cycle time of those experiments: What can we do with what we have; What can we do for free or cheap rather than waiting until everything is here?

The key point here is that a well focused challenge can align people’s efforts and keep them focused on the objective.

The best challenges are the ones that come from within.

What are you striving for?

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