I've got nothing against innovation, per se. To be against innovation is like being anti-motherhood or jumping on some childhood obesity bandwagon and advocating less apple pie. It is the folks who advocate innovation instead of manufacturing that I rail against – those who think the developed nations' role should be to invent whiz-bang new stuff – and leave the work of making it to the third world where people will work for slave wages. That strikes me as a strategy for the short-sighted.
Innovation is fine, but it is the one-two punch of innovation and manufacturing that built the great western economies … innovations such as cars, computers, appliances and light bulbs along with the great manufacturing companies and millions of jobs to make those things. It is not innovation instead of manufacturing that will drive economies forward – it is innovation and manufacturing.
From Warrington, PA comes a great example of just this sort of thing. Not a nanotech/Star Wars/laser solution to some niche concern driven by some guys with advanced degrees in engineering, funded with millions of dollars from Wall Street venture capitalists, but innovation driven by a guy with a two year degree in woodworking from the local community college funded by a $65,000 personal loan.
A guy named Glenn Bostock, armed with an associates degree in cabinet making came up with a scheme to replace the interiors of elevators called 'SnapCab' that reduced the time elevators had to be out of service for refurbishment by huge amounts. He then created a manufacturing company with a strong customer focus and lean culture to make the panels needed to refurbish the elevators.
This story has all of the elements. His innovation was not technology focused, but value focused. He found an innovative way to make something fairly simple and low-tech that created value for customers in a broader sense than just the price. Reducing the time elevators are out of service was a huge value adder for customers.
Then he used the innovation and customer appreciation for his product to create a factory that operates by the simple mission statement "We simplify elevator interior remodeling". You can't focus much more directly than that. And he supports it with a vision statement that includes being a "leading business model" and being of "benefit our customers, employees, and community".
These guys are so focused on providing the maximum overall value to their customers in the broadest sense that, when they deliver all of the components to the job site, they include a bottle of spray cleaner, a roll of paper towels and trash bags so their customers won't lose time looking for the supplies needed to clean up when they are done installing the SnapCab panels.
Forming a vision of value, and aligning the entire manufacturing organization around continuous enhancement of that value in the most creative and focused way possible is the essence of lean thinking. These guys are a great example of the elegance of simple excellence, and what innovation should be all about.