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Week of 28 Nov 2016: Innovation--when you are stuck

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My best inspirations have always been in the morning shower. That may or may not work for you, particularly if you take a bath every Saturday night whether you need it or not (the way I grew up). As an aside, it was the soap manufacturers, in the 1920's in the United States that pushed the change in culture from the weekly bath to daily bathing--it sold seven times more soap!

Back to the topic at hand. I have found over the years that physically changing how I approach things helps me break innovation log jams.

When I worked in facilities with multiple parking lots scattered around the campus, I got in the habit of parking in different places occasionally. Just walking into work from a different angle gave me a different perspective. A bonus here is, if you are walking in at the same time as all others, you may have the opportunity to walk in with a different crowd and serendipitously have a conversation that may germinate a latent thought in your mind. I have even driven to work on different routes at times.

Once inside the mill fence, it a particularly sticky problem has geospatial coordinates. Try approaching it from a different direction. This may jog your creative inspiration gland as well.


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Another technique that works for me is to put myself under pressure, real or imagined. Unless you are the type that freezes up under pressure, this is a good way to force the juices to flow, much as they do in a press section.

Thoroughly cleaning and reorganizing my office has worked a few times, too.

I'll briefly mention a couple of times I put myself under pressure and got outstanding results. I am sure I have mentioned these before, but new readers, may get a kick out of them. Both happened while working for the same client and within a couple of months of each other. I'll tell the abbreviated versions this time.

The first was the case of the converting operation where aluminum foil was laminated to machine-glazed paper to form a burger wrap. The old ovens that cured the lamination process were terrible and wasted lots of natural gas. I was under a fixed contract to come up with the engineering expertise to fix them. I had already accepted a down payment. I couldn't figure out what in the world to do. I went out to lunch and sat there thinking about what a pickle I had gotten into with this assignment. The area was strange to me, but I had happened to notice a couple of natural gas wells around the region (this was before fracking made gas wells ubiquitous in certain parts of the country). Inspiration! After lunch, I drove around the entire facility--on roads about a mile radius from the facility in each direction. There were gas wells on all sides of the facility. Long story short, the facility owned the mineral rights under their land. Punch a well--free gas! Now you don't have to worry about making the ovens efficient and you have the best cost structure of anyone in this sector of the business.


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Second case with this client was an ancient paper mill that discharged its effluent into a municipal sewer system at a cost, if I remember correctly, of about $500,000 per month. It wasn't even a virgin mill--it used baled pulp and recycled fiber. I am in the same pickle--fixed contract and I have already accepted the down payment. There were no drawings and if there had been, I would not have trusted them. So, I went to the basement with cans of spray paint of different colors. I started spraying pulp lines, white water lines and so forth, with unique colored lines with arrows indicating the direction of flow. Essentially, I built myself a life-size 3-D flow sheet. Now I understood the problem. Found an old pump, had about fifty feet of 8-inch stainless line fabricated and installed, with the pump, between point A and point B. I was blessed that the mill knew to do what I told them. There was no local pushback, because the client was the CEO in a distant city. If I remember correctly, the effluent discharge cost immediately dropped to about $80,000 per month.

My only failure was that I did not write contracts which would have paid me for the piece of the savings (and don't contact me asking me to fix your problem for a piece of the savings. As a matter of practice, I won't do it--firm lump sum is my preferred form of remuneration in these cases).

Pressure, change of venue, approaching a problem from a different direction--all tricks you can use to unplug an innovation log jam.

Do you have any tricks or any thoughts on mine? Please take our quiz this week here.

For safety this week, firefighters are innovators. They must quickly assess and determine how safely to enter an area going up in flames.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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