Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ulbrich Steel: Putting Innovation Into Action

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists a very simple definition of innovation:
  1. the introduction of something new
  2. a new idea, method, or device

Respected author and consultant Ken Cook recently penned what I consider a very well written & insightful article in the May 15th edition of The Hartford Business Journal titled "How One CT Company Puts Innovation Into Action".  In the article, CEO Chris Ulbrich explains "action is about transforming ideas into committed action, and having an adherence to and a focus throughout the organization to those ideas and plans. To do it year after year is the art." 

Ken goes onto explain Ulbrich's commitment to a LEAN strategy and how Ulbrich Steel completed over 600 events in 2016. Over 3/4 of these events started with an idea from an employee looking to improve their own work. Their lean journey is a ride that is open to the most seasoned veteran as well as the recently hired. Everyone is invited and encouraged to innovate every day, and they are provided the resources to turn their ideas into action. 

Ken explains that innovative companies become adept in three intertwined areas: climate, thinking and action.  Of particular interest to me are the qualities listed for climate (how people and ideas are treated):

• High levels of trust and openness

• Collaborative approach with less focus on hierarchy.

• Leadership consistently and visibly models open-minded behaviors.

• New ideas are heard with an ear toward possibilities.

• Risk-taking is prudent, flexible and creative.
This culture of continuous improvement (kaizen) is indeed innovative and really an unfair competitive advantage. It is the end result of an incredibly uncommon level of TRUST. Quite simply, it is trusting that a furnace operator with 30 years experience is the best qualified human on the planet to make improvements to his work. My favorite definition of "respect for people"  is that it is disrespectful for ME to fix YOUR job.  Temporary self-directed work teams using A3 thinking are comprised of the person with the idea as the leader and anyone that person may need in the entire company to see that idea all the way to action using the scientific method of problem solving, define-measure-analyze-improve-control. No approval process, no silos. The more often people do this, the better they get at it. Ulbrich people have done this thousands of times, learning lean concepts as they go! Compare THAT to a suggestion box sitting on a wall empty for months or years on end. Imagine working in a company where process changes happen so fast that the ink on the "standard work document" isn't even dry before the next improvement happens?

I learned in my own company that innovation cannot be thought of as the realm of new product development or a few people alone. It is incredibly innovative to learn how to tap into the single biggest (and often unused) resource.....the brainpower of every single human. Ulbrich Steel, accompany that began over 90 years ago, continues to emerge as a global force in an industry with it's share of uncertainty.  They are thriving and growing and as innovative as any company I know.


Ken Cook is the co-author of "How to WHO: Selling Personified," a book about building business through relationships.

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