Innovation is not a concept often associated with an industry like ours that has its roots deep in ancient history. And yet, ironically enough (no pun intended), humankind’s ascent through civilization is virtually defined by the materials it was able to work. Through innovation, our ancient ancestors graduated from the Stone Age and into the Bronze Age that, in turn, became the Iron Age. It is no accident that major epochs in human history are named after the types of metals that civilization learned work.
Why? Because the ability to work metals was a measure of dominance and superiority between civilizations, countries or cultures – from ancient times to the present. Cultures built on conquest had as a foundation the metalworking techniques that enabled the production of laborsaving and timesaving tools and, more importantly, advanced weaponry. I guess you could say that some things never change; only the time does.
Within only the last 150 years, innovation brought us phenomena such as the Industrial Revolution, interchangeable parts and mass production, to name but a few. Faster, more comfortable and more affordable modes of transportation were developed, and with flight we were able to shed the fetters of gravity, break them into orbital insertion and finally shatter them into deep space.
Although many innovations were economically derived, just as many were driven by the quest for military superiority. The two frequently overlap. And through all of this, innovations in metalworking played a significant role in turning the ideas of geniuses into practical and even world-changing products or devices.
Suffice all that precedes this to say that innovation is generally accepted as a good thing that can pay dividends, sometimes quite literally but more often figuratively, to those that learn how to harness it. Most dictionaries define innovation using phrases like “something new or different,” or the “introduction of something new.”
So we all know what it is, but few of us have the natural gift of nurturing a culture that breeds innovation within our organizations. There is no set formula that universally yields innovation, but those who have observed and studied the phenomenon agree that it often comes from an organizational culture that encourages nontraditional thinking, usually in ways that sidestep the bounds of corporate hierarchies. Innovation isn’t ordered from the top down, but rather comes from a company’s culture that stimulates employees’ interactive creativity and embraces even failure so long as something was learned in the process of failing.
In his book The Innovators, Walter Isaacson discusses just such a culture at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., after World War II. There, the interdisciplinary team of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley achieved the monumental (and 1956 Nobel Prize-winning) feat of inventing the transistor, an electronic device that propelled communications and computer design into the modern age. Isaacson describes a similar culture at Apple under Steve Jobs during a time when the sky was the limit for the form and function of all the groundbreaking “i-Products” that were created during his watch.
These are extraordinary stories, but are they relevant to the average forge shop? For what it’s worth, I think they are. Every business manager knows that innovation is a desirable thing and that a lot of it is good for an organization. But one never knows from what source the solutions to a business problem will come. For example, the next technical innovation in your shop, just maybe, could come from the interaction of your accounting department with those on the shop floor.
It is a matter of creating a working environment in which such an event could happen.