In 2014, Sonion embarked on a journey to accelerate the pace of innovation. Sonion makes tiny microphones, speakers and other components for hearing health and professional audio. The company’s product development cycles are tied to their customers’ development cycles and most products are built to spec for a specific customer. For a company like this, the ability to leverage knowledge across customers is the key to accelerating development.
At Sonion, pull for a new innovation system began with a commitment from Freek Blom, then the Vice President of Research and Development, to “learn as fast as possible.” He encouraged his teams to build fast, reusable knowledge throughout their development programs, and established a “Lean R&D” system that enabled them to maximize value by eliminating the wastes of reinvention, budget overruns and manufacturing startup issues.
Hardware Teams Don’t Have Resources to Waste on Reinvention
Innovation teams have too much on their plates to waste a second re-learning what the organization already knows. Yet people often assume that projects are only innovative if they are completely new — new to the company, new to the world. They tell their teams to “forget everything you know” and “start with a blank sheet of paper.” As if they could.
In this series on Agile for Hardware, we’ve assumed that you want to achieve agility — speed, flexibility and responsiveness — without compromising on your ability to deliver breakthroughs and even disruptive innovation. When you understand how to deploy the knowledge you already have, even disruptive innovations require less invention. This means that your teams don’t need to start with a blank sheet of paper; instead, they’ll start by figuring out what the team already knows and using that as a place to start even if the final destination is far outside the company’s normal boundaries.
Agile Hardware Development is Knowledge Development
Closing Knowledge Gaps accelerates innovation through better decision making. Capturing that knowledge real-time accelerates the current program by helping decision-makers make better decisions today and accelerates future programs even more by giving these future teams a better place to start. The current team has made their knowledge available to future teams for reuse and extension.
We coach teams to write short, focused reports to capture the results of their Knowledge Gap investigations. Although each report is short and focused, it doesn’t take very long for a team to develop an impressive body of knowledge, already captured in small pieces that are easier for others to digest, reuse and extend.
This knowledge is valuable even if the program itself is stopped. As a team’s innovation leads to the development of a new product, a new product family or a new business, the value of that knowledge goes up exponentially.
Some innovation experts claim that this leads only to incremental innovation that is not very exciting and certainly not disruptive.
But as Steve Jobs said, “”Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
It’s a lot easier to make connections if you already have the raw materials to feed the synthesis of new ideas.
Knowledge is the Raw Material for Breakthrough Innovation
When your teams understand the fundamental physics behind their designs, they have the raw materials to apply that knowledge to new problems that may look nothing like the original problem domain. Basic science includes the physical science — but also the social science behind your product: consumer and channel partner behaviors, user interactions, market research data and field observations. It includes process knowledge, such as the science of efficient validation testing and early integration, as well as product design knowledge about things like materials and components, mechanical stress, electrical interference and environmental limits.
When people ask innovation teams to start with a blank sheet of paper, what they really mean is that they don’t want just an incremental improvement. But the way to get breakthroughs is to start lower down the scale, at the level of the basic science and consumer behavior you want to influence, with knowledge that is built to be extensible.
Extensible knowledge is any knowledge that has value outside of the specific problem domain where it was developed. This includes everything from existing product data and knowledge about current customer behavior to knowledge about your competitors, key suppliers, partners and the development process itself. This knowledge can be reused and extended in other domains.
When teams first begin using Rapid Learning Cycles, they see that their current program goes faster because they are not experiencing as many long, slow loopbacks. But the real results begin to show up on the next programs, because those teams are able to benefit from the extensible knowledge captured from earlier programs.
As teams begin to use the Rapid Learning Cycles framework, they learn the value of knowledge reuse quickly. When they can beg, borrow or steal knowledge from others to close a Knowledge Gap, they free up time to close another Knowledge Gap. Since teams never have time to close all of the Knowledge Gaps they have, they will be driven to look for such opportunities. Then at the end of every Learning Cycle, teams capture the new knowledge they have built, in the Knowledge Gap reports they’ll use to share this knowledge within their teams.
Systematic Knowledge Capture Accelerates Innovation
The experiences of Sonion and many of our other clients demonstrate that a library of extensible knowledge is the raw material for innovation. When you understand how your product works at the level of the fundamental science, and you have the same knowledge depth about your customers and markets, then you’re in a unique position to identify and solve problems your customers didn’t know they had.
For Sonion, the ability to capture its deep knowledge about the science behind its microphones and receivers, and make that knowledge more accessible to its developers, has delivered dividends in faster time-to-market and greater reliability.