Praveen Gupta  |  03/31/2009

Innovation: The New Face of Quality

The quality profession is evolving--from product control to quality assurance to advocacy.

For almost 100 years of our quality journey, we increasingly pampered our customers by giving them what they wanted. Customers now assume that quality is a given. Further, in our present information age, customers are more aware of competitive suppliers, as well as suppliers with poor performance. Quality performance has peaked globally, and the faces of quality have moved from the line worker to the corporate executive. Activities that improve quality hardly yield significant benefits anymore. So what else can be done to improve business performance and delight customers?

In the interdependent and competitive global economy one must find true competitive advantages based on features and capability rather than quality alone. Delivering a solution that is unique to each customer is becoming more important than delivering a standard solution with virtually perfect quality. Instead of managing the cost of goods or services, businesses will need to manage growth by offering innovative solutions to customers. The quality of innovation becomes a differentiating factor. The quality of innovation implies how well each business is equipped to innovate and offer high-volume custom solutions. Thus the businesses will be moving from quality improvement to innovation improvement.

Interestingly, innovation has become a global issue and is being addressed by national governments. In the European Union, for example, each country must have a national policy on innovation, create an infrastructure for innovation, and establish measures of innovation to grow the economy and maintain and improve the standard of living. India formed the Knowledge Commission to establish its national innovation policy. China’s premier launched an initiative called Self Innovation to change its image from that of a low-cost manufacturer to an economically self-reliant nation offering new products and services for global consumption. The United States passed an Innovation Act in 2005 to promote innovation in manufacturing. In other words, we are in the innovation age, and this offers a great opportunity for quality professionals to migrate from improvement to innovation.

Innovation implies the use of intellectual resources--the people and their intellectual involvement, knowledge management, and new product innovations. Innovation offers a great opportunity for quality professionals to lead the organization in improving the quality of business by contributing to profitable growth. They have the inherent advantage of knowing the customer’s pulse and the organization’s capabilities. They only lack an innovation methodology to leverage existing resources to exploit the opportunities offered by the customers.

Having been a quality professional who successfully transitioned to an innovation professional, I see a striking commonality between quality improvement and innovation. Ultimately, innovation means change, and so does improvement. One way to understand the difference is that improvement may be a one-dimensional change, while innovation is a multidimensional change.

The three rules of creativity

We must learn about innovation as a process. It begins with a belief that one can be innovative. Innovation is for everyone, and can be applied in everything. It is no longer a debate between manufacturing and service. Many experts tell us that we must learn creativity, the assumption being that we are not already creative. I believe that we all are creative. The evidence of our creativity comes from our actions. We rarely do anything exactly the same way twice. After teaching business innovation classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology, I have come to the conclusion that the following three steps help everyone to become more creative. Applying these steps changed my class response from being 5-percent creative to 100-percent creative in 10 minutes. These rules for creativity are as follows:

Rule 1: Decide to always be creative. Look for innovations everywhere, admire creativity, and research any topic that interests you. Learn as much as possible.

Rule 2: Start combining two or more items or ideas in unique ways. Every innovation is a unique synthesis of many ideas. Analyze other innovations to see what is so different about them. Associating and combining is a natural activity for our brain.

Rule 3: Continually practice to become fast at combining ideas. We must become fast thinkers by synthesizing all the information we have gathered and have fun doing it.


The five phases of the methodology

Once we learn the creative process, we must recognize that creativity and innovation are two different things. Creativity is just an idea, invention is a prototype, and innovation is production. Unless the idea becomes a reality and is used repeatedly in creating value--and people are willing to pay for it--it isn’t innovation. For example, suppose no one bought Apple’s iPod. Would it be called innovative? Absolutely not; it would simply be a creative product. Thus we must learn the entire cycle of innovation, from concept development to monetization. I see the innovation methodology as consisting of the following five phases, which are also seen in figure 1, below.

Target. Studies suggest that research-and- development-driven innovations have only been about 4- or 5-percent successful. Reducing product life cycles requires faster innovation, leading to innovation on demand. Defining what to innovate to fulfill customer needs helps improve the success rate of new products.

Explore. Today’s R&D represents a little research and a lot of development. I think this is backwards. Initial research is critical to maximize innovation. Good innovation depends on excellent exploration. In other words, before developing an innovative solution, we must extend and expand our thinking based on thorough research. In the absence of solid research, products coming out of R&D will be of marginal quality in terms of design, innovation, and meeting customer expectations.

Develop. Once information about customers’ needs is gathered and sufficient research has been conducted, multiple innovative solutions can be quickly developed. The result is having many alternative innovative solutions to choose from rather than taking the conventional approach and developing the first (and probably only) solution.

Optimize. Out of the multiple innovative solutions, the best and most economically feasible solution is selected and optimized for robust production and delivery. The solution must provide profit margins. Currently, new products often have early failures, and many businesses lose money during the introduction year. For example, any car in its introduction year is considered to be a risky purchase due to its higher-than-normal failure rate. A well-implemented optimization phase would minimize such risks.

Commercialize.In transforming a creative solution to a successful innovation, excellence in marketing the solution to potential customers plays a significant role. No sales, no innovation--it’s that simple. We must not be satisfied with just developing a creative product, service, or business model. For any innovation to be successful, we must also be innovative in generating revenue growth.


The four types of innovations

One of the innovator’s dilemmas is how to manage innovation, i.e., delivering innovative solutions when needed, allocating the necessary resources, and defining the process of innovation. Most companies do allocate time and budget to new product development; however, they are unable to deliver on time, within the budget, and make money. Our analysis shows that, on average, return on innovations for most corporations are between 15 and 20 cents per dollar spent on development. This supports the hypothesis that the current innovation process is inefficient.

Understanding the types of innovations and their characteristics will help prepare for innovation. I have come up with the following four types of innovations:

Fundamental innovations. These are the rare ones that represent a major discovery. These innovations include development of the transistor, the theory of relativity, the photocopying process, or mobile phones. These innovations usually occur in large laboratories dedicated to new thinking or discoveries.

Platform innovations. These are the base products of corporations. These innovations take fundamental innovations and launch a new industry or a new market. Most large businesses start with a platform product and grow with its success. These innovations include Microsoft’s operating system, Oracle’s database, Motorola’s Razor cell phone, IBM’s computer, Service Master’s services, Caterpillar or John Deere’s farming products, Southwest Airlines’ low-cost flights, and Apple’s iPod. Some small companies also have platform products and grow into a larger company. The platform innovations align with the long-term strategy of corporations.

Derivative innovations. These are a variation of the platform innovation. They are byproducts of platform products. Apple’s iPod had the Nano and Shuffle; Motorola’s Razor had Crazor, Pebble, and Rocker; and Microsoft Office had PowerPoint, Excel, Access, and Word. Once successful, companies capitalize on their successful platform innovation by developing derivative innovations. The derivative innovations take much less time to develop than the platform innovations.

Variation innovations. These are the customized applications of various platform or derivative innovations through options, services, and integration. These innovations can be developed by the user or the supplier to personalize or customize the product. For example, iPod has a service for imprinting the customer’s name, and cell phones can be personalized with color covers and unique ringtones. The variation innovations also could be keenly focused implementations of other innovations for a specific use. The variation innovations can be developed in real time responding to a customer’s need.


Figure 2, above, shows frequency and time for various types of innovations. Classifying innovations in this way also allows one to allocate the necessary resources. For example, the variation innovation can be planned with one to 10 people, a derivative innovation with up to 100, a platform up to 1,000 people, and a fundamental using up to 10,000 or more people, as a relative extent of allocated resources.

What to innovate

One of the commonly asked questions about innovation is what to innovate. We must always think innovatively, i.e., identifying the market or value potential of creative ideas continually. Be an opportunist and look out for employee dissatisfaction, low-yield processes, management issues, contradictions, or conflicts. In other words, look for pain points and decide to create an innovative solution. Have faith that if a problem exists and can be vocalized, then there must be a solution. That is the opportunity for innovation. As quality professionals, we should grab such opportunities to create value innovatively. The opportunity for innovation could be procedural or technical. The opportunity could be short term or long term. The short-term opportunity corresponds to variation and derivative innovations, and the long-term opportunities relate to platform and fundamental innovations.


The quality profession has evolved from 100-percent inspection to sampling plans to Six Sigma. We must maintain our intent to help our organizations improve their financial performance. Innovation provides quality professionals with a great opportunity to contribute to corporate performance more visibly. Understanding a holistic framework will help us start our innovation journey.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Arvin Sri of Accelper Consulting, Richard O’Brien of Payment Pathways, and Alexis Goncalves of InnovationInsight for their continual discussion and reviews.


About The Author

Praveen Gupta’s picture

Praveen Gupta

Praveen Gupta is the founding president of Accelper Consulting (, has worked at Motorola and AT&T Bell Laboratories, and consulted with nearly 100 small- to large-size companies including CNA, Abbott Labs, Superior Essex, Dentsply, Hexel, Experian, Sloan Valves, Weber Markings, Wayne State (Ford), and Telular. Gupta taught Operations Management at DePaul University, and Business Innovation at Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. He has conducted seminars worldwide for over 20 years.

He is the author of several books including Business Innovation in the 21st Century, Stat Free Six Sigma, Six Sigma Performance Handbook, and Service Scorecard.


The New face of Quality -- An Inexpensive Face-lift

The New face of Quality is also getting an inexpensive facelift, according to WSJ ... Innovation initiatives that used to take months and megabucks to coordinate and launch can often be started in seconds for cents. And that makes innovation, the WSJ writes, a lifeblood of growth, more efficient and cheaper.

The new Voice of the Customer is: Companies are able to get a much better idea of how their customers behave and what they want. This gives new offerings and marketing efforts a better shot at success. Companies will also be willing to try new things, because the price of failure is so much lower. That will bring big changes for corporate culture making it easier to challenge accepted wisdom, for instance, and forcing managers to give more employees a say in the innovation process.