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  • krishnan62

Do you have a narrative for innovation?

Most successes, if they have to be recounted, start with a story that goes "once upon a time ...". Here is my little story.

In 1997 I was offered a role that I didn’t apply for. I visited Castrol as a customer from Ford, one of the QS9000 audit firms that invited us to witness their QS 9000 audit. At the end of the audit, I was explaining to the Castrol leadership the reasoning behind some of the requirements, that Castrol was not meeting. At the end of the audit, Mr Ram Savoor asked me if I would like to head the QA function and bring in world-class thinking on quality, an offer I couldn’t refuse.

But doing it proved far more difficult. Castrol was a super successful organization then. They had great marketing campaigns, great technology, great supply chain and were extremely profitable. Quality control was working quite well.

The trouble was that nobody realized that they needed to change their mindset on quality to be truly world-class. I got told to make sure that we maintained our ISO 9000 and QS 9000 certificates.

It took a production error to wake us up, a batch of containers with no lubes in them got shipped and was discovered in the warehouse.

That was the moment when Ushwin Desousa and I built our quality narrative. We collected all the stories of poor quality and with our consultants led by Ravind Mithe, built the narrative of why a premium brand like Castrol couldn’t afford the level of quality that existed.

Three years later, the organization was setting operational benchmarks, it had one of the best operations excellence programs. We bettered 6 sigma quality, reduced wastage dramatically and ran one of the safest operations. Castrol plants in India were amongst the lowest cost manufacturers of lubricants, delivering some of the best products, with a remarkable on-time and in-full delivery performance. It was one of the first operations where production operators were officially authorized to stop lines in case of defects and restart only after solving the problem.

The quality transformation was possible because the narrative we developed stuck a chord with all the employees. They truly accepted that they needed to improve, even if the quality was better than what customers asked for or what the competition offered.

These days, I find similarities between innovation and the quality programs of the 90s and the subsequent decade.

Innovation, like quality then, is a desirable thing, not essential or critical to organizational success.

Organizations want to flaunt innovation as a marketing thing. They flaunt small success, often overhyping innovation. They promote tools (much like quality certification in the 90s) and create what you could refer to as “innovation theatre”

Employees recognize the hollowness of all of this.

They recognize that what used to be called kaizens are suddenly being referred to as incremental innovation

They recognize that the IT function has suddenly become the centre of digital transformations and IT projects are digital innovation

They recognize that the same set of operational excellence toolkits is getting new life as innovation toolkits. Kaizen weeks have become ideation weeks, and creativity workshops have sprung up.

They see simple product changes being launched as innovative products

They see that products that have been in the works for many years are suddenly referred to as innovation

In most organizations, the entire ecosystem loses faith in the word innovation. They begin to see it as another management jargon, the flavour of the times and one that will pass.

To succeed with innovation (as with any other transformation), an organization requires multiple things in place. I represent this as an equation

Success = f(Pain, Vision, Process, Value)

Pain: Does the organization feel a pain that it can't remove with all the tricks in its belt?

Vision: Can the organization visualize a bright future that it could potentially reach?

Process: Is it aware of a process-centric approach to achieve the future?

Value: Does it see value creation in the process?

All transformations require these elements and without them, you have drama.

A narrative is a story that builds all these elements which you can present to all stakeholders, the board, management team, employees, investors and partners.

For success with innovation, you need a strong narrative that the entire organization will buy into.

Innovation provides you with solutions to problems that you don't know how to solve. There are plenty of such challenges and usually noticed when you think about the future.

If you would like to discuss this topic further, DM me, I am happy to spend an hour brainstorming with you

Krishnan Naganathan

Krishnan is a leading innovation consultant and focuses on helping people and organizations innovate and build capabilities for innovation. He brings over 25 years of experience in the industry and consulting. You can reach him by phone / WhatsApp: +919791033967 or email:


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