The Meta-Patterns of Innovation by Mark Rosenthal

When we study organizations whose performance stands out among their peers, we tend to try to understand the structural patterns of what they do. For instance, the product and process mechanics – how the inputs are transformed into outputs; the organization chart – who reports, and “is accountable” to whom; the organization of materials and information – which we frequently branded as things such as “visual controls” and “5S.” In reality, these structural patterns can vary widely from one organization to another, even among those who are performing well.

We contend, however, that while the visible structural patterns may be different, the purpose of those structural patterns reveals a common way of thinking, or meta-patterns, that are implemented by the various structures we can directly observe.

September 18, 1901

After a frustrating summer, Wilbur Wright had been invited to speak at the monthly meeting of the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago. The transcript of his talk, titled Some Aeronautical Experiments, became the most reprinted paper published by the society.

In his talk, Wilbur identified the three major problems that had to be solved to build a machine capable of sustained, powered, controlled flight:

  • Design and construction of a wing that can sustain enough lift to support the flying machine and the pilot.
  • Design and construction of an engine and propulsion system that can push the flying machine through the air at sufficient speed for the wing to sustain lift.
  • Design and construction of a system to enable the pilot to balance, steer and control the flying machine.

Wilbur went on to say that, of these three problems, the first two had largely been solved by others.

Based on the work of Otto Lilienthal and others, people (Wilbur used the term “men” but we will cut him some slack for being raised in Victorian times.) had been building and flying gliders since the 1870s.

Hiram Maxim had built a large machine that, while tethered to the ground, had sufficient power to push itself fast enough to gain lift.

Thus, Wilbur concluded, since the first two issues had been figured out, the problem he and his brother had to resolve was the third: How to control an aeroplane once it is in the air.

His plan had been to build a glider and fly it like a kite – tethered to the ground facing into a stiff wind. For this reason, flight testing was done on the beach near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In this way, Wilbur thought, he (and his little brother, once Wilbur felt it was safe enough) could practice flying, gain experience, and learn the art of flight.

He chose this approach because he realized that his predecessors, many of whom had been killed, had gained precious little experience actually flying. Otto Lilienthal, who died in a crash following a stall in 1896, gained maybe 15 minutes of total flight time over the 10+ years of his research.

However, Wilbur wasn’t being exactly truthful with his audience.

Earlier that summer, as they had been heading home to Dayton from Kitty Hawk in July 1901 following their second flight testing season, Wilbur and Orville were ready to give up. He later recalled telling his brother “Not within a thousand years will man ever fly.”

Wilbur also corresponded continuously with his mentor, Octave Chanute, an esteemed engineer who also had an interest in flight. It was Chanute who invited Wilbur to speak at the Society of Western Engineers that September. As he prepared for that talk, Wilbur was able to reflect on what they had learned along the way. More importantly, he was able to reflect on what they did not know, and what they needed to learn.

And what they needed to learn about was lift.

In 1900, the brothers took the best information available to them and used it to construct their first full-size glider, with the plan of kiting it and testing their innovation – warping, or twisting, the wings to bank the aeroplane into a turn. Wilbur realized this is how birds control their flight – not by simply changing direction in a flat plane like a boat. In 1899 he had built a small kite to test the concept, and it had worked.

However, the glider tests did not go as planned. The glider generated only about â…“ of the lift that their calculations predicted it would. Therefore, though they were able to kite the glider, it could not support the weight of a pilot at the same time. The brothers did achieve some flights, but only with high headwinds, and down steep slopes of the dunes at Kitty Hawk.

In 1901 they tried again. The Wright brothers scaled up their 1900 design but got essentially the same result. During that summer, they had also committed one of the basic errors of engineering research: They started modifying their design and lost track of their baseline.

Harry Combs writes in his book Kill Devil Hill, “The Wrights in their new design had also committed what to modern engineers would be an unforgivable sin. […] they made two wing design changes simultaneously and without test[ing].” As they changed more variables, they lost control of their baseline and started senselessly trying one change after another.

And so, they went home frustrated and dejected.

But newly energized after his talk, Wilbur and Orville set out to understand what they did not yet understand. To this end they constructed a crude wind tunnel, invented mechanisms to measure the lift, drag and other parameters during their tests [ footnote – the Wright Balance was used to measure wind tunnel tests up until the development of electronic transducers accurate enough to do it better in the 1970s and 1980s].

They ran methodical tests on 200 different experimental airfoils, revised and tested the mathematical models they were using for predicting lift, and at the end of that winter, had a dramatically different wing design, and shifted aerodynamics from an art toward becoming a science along the way

We should point out here that while Wilbur had completed four years of high school, he did not have a diploma until he was awarded one by the city of Dayton in 1994. Meanwhile, Orville had only completed three years of high school. Nevertheless, they had great mechanical aptitude and were not doing this by seat-of-the-pants tinkering. They were applying sophisticated mathematics and the scientific method to all they did.

Wilbur and Orville returned to Kitty Hawk in 1902 with their new glider, and it worked. The lift problem was solved. During their flight testing that summer, they were also able to confirm their theory that a front mounted elevator, what they called the “horizontal rudder,” would be more tolerant of a stall. If lift did fail, their glider tended to float flat toward the ground rather than “auger in” at high speed. This characteristic saved Wilbur’s life at least once.

They also discovered, however, that when they banked the plane, the nose tended to move in the opposite direction of the turn. This was because the wing on the outside radius was creating more lift, both from being “warped” to initiate the bank, and because it was moving faster through the air during the turn. More lift means more “drift” (what, today, we call “induced drag” – the energy penalty we pay for changing the momentum of air moving over the wing to create lift in the first place), which in turn, slowed down that side of the plane.

Their solution was the final problem to be solved: A movable “vertical rudder” to explicitly control yaw. Three axis control had now been invented. They could fly their aeroplane where they wanted as long as they could maintain the glide.

In the late fall of 1903, the brothers returned once more with, what today, we call the Wright Flyer. You can see it in the Smithsonian. On December 17, 1903, on their second attempt, Orville Wright succeeded in lifting off and flying under control for 120 feet. They made three subsequent flights, the longest of a bit under 2/10 of a mile. Wilbur was actually headed for the Coast Guard station 2 miles away when a gust of wind forced him to land after about a minute in powered, controlled flight. As they were preparing to recover the plane for another flight, another gust flipped it over and damaged it beyond their ability to repair with the time and materials they had. But they had done it.

At the turn of the last century, many people were trying to build an aeroplane. After these two brothers succeeded, they continued development for another 4 years, and in 1908 revealed their practical aeroplane to the world to seek business for their invention – Wilbur in France, and Orville in the USA. By all accounts, they were 10 years ahead of everyone else at that point.

When we see innovations like this, it is easy to trace only through the path of success and say they are the result of some combination of genius and luck. Clearly these two brothers had a drive and collaborative working relationship that is rare even today.

They had trust of one another. Their sister wrote about how they would seem to be almost violent in their arguments, then suddenly switch sides to better explore the other’s position – all with no damage to their long-term relationship. They gave one another confidence and support, and they operated within a sphere of safety where ideas could be freely expressed and explored.

They also had an incredible sense of purpose driving them. Where others were working to build a flying machine, Wilbur wanted to fly. This drive took the brothers’ thinking beyond the mechanics of the machine. When the machine did not work, they tried to better understand the mechanics of flight itself and then achieved multiple breakthroughs.

These types of working relationships may be rare, but we know organizations today who exhibit many of these characteristics. Their work is highly collaborative, and they discuss failures and successes in terms of what they are learning.

The question is whether an organization can rely less on happenstance and instead create these collaborative relationships deliberately.

If we look more deeply at these outliers, we see some common patterns. Because these patterns might be expressed in very different ways, we like to call them meta-patterns – the underlying pattern of patterns.

Innovation and Continuous Improvement = Problem Solving

Wilbur and Orville Wright were extraordinary problem solvers. Their skills were multiplied by the simple fact that they worked as a team – they didn’t divide the work but rather they engaged each problem together. The only time they spent time apart was in 1908 when Wilbur was in France and Orville was in Washington, DC demonstrating their flying machine to prospective buyers. Even then, they maintained a rich correspondence.

When we look at other consistently creative enterprises we see similar patterns – people working in small groups focused on the same problem. They talk about the problem, try ideas, and show the other(s) what they are thinking. It is a social activity.

But when we examine the purpose and effect of the various “lean tools” or “problem solving tools,” we tend to look at the mechanics of how they affect the processes and the work of individuals – the mechanics of the machine. We contend that in high-performance organizations, the emphasis is on the impact those structures and artifacts have on how people interact with one another – the mechanics of innovation and collaboration. Though the actual tools and artifacts may be very different from one organization to another, they tend to trigger consistent patterns of interaction between the people. It is this purposeful social interaction, rather than the tools themselves, that deliver the kinds of results we associate with “continuous improvement.”

Common Patterns of Thinking and Innovation

Frequent Checks to Drive Curiosity

After a tour group of medical professionals spent a little time on the shop floor of Kaas Tailored in Mukilteo, Washington, Jeff Kaas asked them some simple questions:

Am I having a good year so far? Everyone agreed that, aside from a slight labor variance in one department, the answer is yes.

Can you tell who is having difficulty or needs help? Everyone agreed that the red / yellow / green beer cups on poles told them right away just by looking.

Can you tell if production is ahead, behind, or on track? Everyone agreed that the simple visual signals, combined with the beer cups, told them that things were generally on track. The problem they observed was handled within a couple of minutes.

After spending 20 minutes of orientation in Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, visitors can answer the same questions by looking at colored dots on 5×7 cards and a piece of yarn that shows progress versus the estimated time to do the work.

The simple 5S shadow board gives us the same kind of information.

All of these things allow people to very quickly ask, and answer the same questions:

  • What should be happening?
  • What is actually happening?

And they invite people to become curious:

  • What problem has been revealed?
  • What have we learned?
  • Can we explain why there is a difference here?

In the most effective organizations, that curiosity is transformed into active, deliberate discussion and problem solving. This is a very different response than simply expecting people to “follow the standard” via audits and scoresheets.

Further, when the problem is represented physically, rather than a numeric score or KPI on an abstract spreadsheet, people tend to stand side-by-side facing the problem and confronting the problem rather than facing and confronting one another.

Everything is an Experiment

When we are explicitly doing process improvement, it is easy to think in terms of an experiment: “If I make this change, what result do I expect?” then check to see if the result we expect is the one we get. We can always learn from the difference. But these benchmark organizations tend to blur the distinction between

“process improvement” and “just doing the work.” They structure their daily work as experiments. However, once again, it is how the tool or artifact is used that makes the difference. Let’s look at the classic assembly line and takt time.

In one case, if a worker cannot complete the work within the takt time, attention gets focused on the person and what he did wrong. But if the organization is using the pacing to drive interaction between people, we get an entirely different outcome.

The standard work and pacing define a target condition – how we expect the process to operate if it is problem free. Now the person doing the work becomes the eyes and ears for the organization. If a problem is encountered, she signals that a problem or obstacle has been discovered, for example via an andon call. The response becomes inquisitive rather than punitive. The problem is pointed out, and people begin working together to better understand and resolve it.

Clarity about the Problem

When the team at Menlo Innovations find themselves advocating different actions or solutions, someone quickly clears the air with one of their frequently invoked mantras: “What problem are you actually trying to solve?”

We see the same question asked a different way in Mike Rother’s Coaching Kata, created by dissecting the interactions in Toyota’s well-known problem-solving process: “What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?” followed by “Which one are you addressing now?”

Wilbur and Orville were equally clear – they were working to solve one problem at a time as they progressed through their classic research and development project. They didn’t set out to design an airplane from scratch. They set out to solve the problems that prevented smooth, stable flight as those problems were encountered.

The visual controls, the pacing tools, and the principle of one-by-one flow are all intended to quickly reveal the next problem. The nature of flow production tends to surface problems quickly and sequentially rather than accumulating them into big batches to be untangled later. But these revelations are only an invitation. It is the collaborative response triggered which drives continuous improvement.

A Structure for Thinking Out Loud

In the end, these mechanisms create an opportunity for people to talk freely about what they are seeing and what they are thinking. Rather having people work in isolation, these environments are structured to encourage people to share their thoughts with one another.

This is the intent of the A3 process – to structure a conversation. Learning how to have that conversation in a productive way, though, does require practice. Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata method is intended to provide yet another structure for that practice. It gives us a scientific way to compare how we are actually talking about the problem versus how we should be talking about it.

Effective Collaboration Requires Trust and Relationships

Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in a closely-knit family and had a strong working relationship not only with one another, but also with their father and especially their sister, Katherine. In our organizations it is important to understand that innovation, creativity and ultimately productivity is an outcome of the interrelationships between the people.

Once we understand this fundamental, we look at organizations that are deliberately structured to prevent people from building working relationships by reducing everything to a transaction. At this point, we should not be surprised that these organizations tend to be the ones that struggle to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of innovation.

In the end, creativity involves conflict – bouncing ideas against one another. It is a process of ideas being tried, failing, combining, and evolving until the best ones emerge as successful. Constructive conflict will not happen unless there is trust. To be “all in,” people must trust that they will not be made wrong or lose social standing if an idea seems crazy or doesn’t work. People will engage in meaningful discussion when they trust that the entire team wins or loses together.

If we look at how improv groups interact, we see this kind of trust. One person throws out an idea, and the others are expected to grab onto it, work hard to understand the intent, then build on the thread with their own additions. Rather than “No, but…” the concept is “YES! And…!” Like any skill, this kind of interaction can be built with deliberate practice.

If you just put a bunch of new tools in, without doing the hard work to build these kinds of relationships and trust among the people, then you have a bunch of new ways to track and assign blame.

The only person who can actually make the decision to succeed, even with all of the barriers in the way, is you. And then can you find like-minded people in the organization who also want to succeed — even if they look foolish in the process of learning.

The tools only function when there is a relationship.

James Goebel, Co-Founder, Menlo Innovations

Authored by:
Mark Rosenthal

Published by:
Lean Frontiers, Inc.

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