Hello, this is John Cronin in Invent Anything. Welcome to Episode 5, “Types of Creativity 3.” We are going to be talking today about continuous improvement thinking. We will cover the first topic of the history and the theory of continuous improvement thinking, and in Topic 2, we will give you some tools and examples, and then, as usual, we will wrap up.
But, before we get started, as before, we will talk about the audience. For those that like to facilitate, this is for you. For those individuals that like to do things and be very productive individually, these tools are very, very useful for you, and are also very useful and unique to add this information into reports, and for that secret facilitator, once again, to be able to guide conversations using these thinking tools.
But, unlike all the other creativity tools we have talked about before, as we start to head into improving things and making things work, it is likely this is not good for kids, teachers, or marketing. Now, this is not to say that children, teachers, and marketing folks cannot improve anything, but this generally heads in the technical direction of making things work. Children have lots of ideas, but when you ask them how to make them, it is very difficult. This is a very good session for those inventors or engineers who want to make things work and anyone who needs new ideas to work.
Topic 1: History and Theory of Continuous Improvement Thinking
So, let’s talk about Topic No. 1, history and theory. I do not know if you recall, but in Episode 2, we talked about novelty versus operability. As things become more and more operable, they tend to shift from being impossible to easy. If I have my Y axis where I have very wild ideas at the top and my X axis is nearly impossible, I have these starting ideas that are kind of wild, but over time, we move down toward more normal and easy ideas, and we talked about that maturing, starting from some starting point to becoming mature, and we talked about how even a lead pencil might have been a wild idea for the people who were just using quill pens. But, continuous improvement is just like this. It starts in some place and becomes more mature, operable, easy, and normal to remember.
For the first topic here, history and theory, where does continuous thinking fit into the scheme of things? Well, first of all, “continuous improvement thinking” was a term that we had to actually make up. This idea of continuous improvement thinking is not a term of normal art, so you will only find this where ipCapital and myself are involved. We had to make up these terms, as we had made up many other terms over our 24-year history, such as “invention on demand,” “IP landscape,” “IP scan,” and even “IP consultant.” These are terms that we made up as the industry matured.
Moving Invention Ideas from Unconscious to Conscious
But, let’s talk about where continuous improvement fits in. If you think about an idea line where it starts off at some unconscious level, coming up an idea that you don’t even understand yet, but then it pops into your conscious and is very vague, which we talked about in associative thinking, and then you can start to verbalize ideas and have a seed idea to start with, and then, at some point down the road, you find out that you have an elaborate engineering book, some disclosure such as patents, prototypes, and development, and then it goes into production and marketing and people use it, so we call that the idea line.
What we found was there was a very delicate stage between moving from the unconscious idea and the conscious, vague idea to the verbalized ideas and the seed of an idea, but there seemed to be this place that was opened up where many did not know how to start to get from the seed of an idea to that first lab entry book. So, that is what we call continuous improvement. It is the place where if you do not do continuous improvement thinking, many great ideas get dismissed because it is felt that the seed of the idea will not work. Sometimes, it gets dismissed because it is a “not invented here” syndrome, or the idea is not clear, or it is really not understood by everybody.
Applying Continuous Improvement Thinking to Invention Sessions
So, what really happens here is continuous improvement thinking is it creates these seed ideas and moves them to the next level so everybody can understand how they work, and this is so important because in creativity sessions, we have lots of Post-It notes and lots of ideas, but most of them do not go forward because people do not think they can make them enabled or operable, which is our next episode.
So, today, we are going to talk about continuous improvement thinking and talk about how we move from that seed idea to something that really works. There is a great example of this historically. You can find a great series by James Burke, the BBC broadcaster. In 1978, he had the Connections sequence of 10 movies, and then, later on, The Day the Universe Changed. You can get these on Kindle for $12.00, or I am told that they are on YouTube now. Connections took an interdisciplinary approach on the history of science, and it demonstrated how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and even world events were built from one to the next successively. He showed, for instance, how a French wine bottle by Napoleon led to Space Shuttle boosters.
The Evolution of Invention Ideas
So, this shows continuous improvement thinking in action over history. We all do stand on the shoulders of other inventors, of course, but of course, continuous improvement thinking can be done much smaller than that; we can view it much smaller than that. So, if you take a paintbrush to go to roller brush to go to a spray painter, you can see evolution occurring, going from one dimension to two dimensions and multiple dimensions. Even a comb went to the brush and then the rotating brush. So, with continuous improvement thinking over many years, you do go from one device to the next and one improvement to the next. So, it is pretty normal over history or over smaller periods of time that continuous improvement thinking works. We are just talking about that time between that seed of an idea that you get out of a creative session or a creative output and how to move it forward and not dismiss it.
Well, the high-level process for the history and theory of continuous improvement thinking on this first topic is that first of all, the process almost always starts at a vague place, and then you can define the idea in a very crisp way, maybe by writing it down for the group or making sure that everybody understands the same idea the same way, and then point out the limitations of the idea. But, here is the trick: If you point out all the limitations, you will never get anywhere. You can point out multiple limitations of the new idea, but you have to start with one limitation, and by overcoming each limitation and then going over through each limitation each time, the idea tends to be much more workable.
The Golden Rule of Invention: Any Idea is Workable
So, there is a golden rule here that basically says that all ideas can really be made workable. Ideas would not be put into your mind if they could not be made workable. I guess you would have to hang around me for a while to see that to be true. You might not believe it, but you can make operable almost every idea that you come up with.
So, here is an example. Suppose that the first idea is that we should have cars that never crash. This example I am going to give you is an example that I have used for over 20 years. So, we should have cars that never crash. Well, then, the limitation is how are we going to ensure they do not collide? So, an improvement to that idea is that we should put barriers between all the lanes, and that would really stop these cars from crashing, but then the limitation would be how we switch lanes. So, another improved idea is to have a barrier, like an electrical strip, let the cars read that electrical strip, so when you move over, the car would vibrate or shake and not allow you to move over. We feel that this improvement from idea to idea with the limitations, if done very systematically and slowly with teams or by yourself, can make any idea come more to life and be improved.
Topic 2: Tools and Examples of Continuous Improvement
So, we are going to move on to Topic 2, then, to talk about some tools and examples of continuous improvement thinking. We are going to be talking about our first tool, action/owner/date. It is a very simple tool, easy to use, and very powerful. We will move then to Tool No. 2, which is input/output, then to Tool No. 3, which is brain writing. This is great with groups. And then, Tool No. 4, SCAMPER, as we talked about Alex Osborn, who had invented SCAMPER. We will talk about that and give an example. And then, we will talk about a tool that we invented at ipCapital called opposites, which leveraged the critical thinking of all the engineers we worked with, and we found it is best used with critical thinking to actually help us continuously improve a new idea.
Tool #1: Action/Owner/Date
So, let’s go to Topic No. 2, tools and examples, and let’s talk about the first one, action/owner/date. Really, this is a takeoff of that very simple tool we used in Episode 3, where we used divergence with the lists. The simplest way to do this is to just make a list of improvements with action/owner/date so you can plan ahead for continuous improvement thinking. So, each idea is translated from vague to potential ideas with improvements over time with an action/owner/date. The way this works is suppose you want to do continuous improvement thinking on an idea like creating a wristband that distributes hand sanitizer. It was a recent idea I had for COVID because I am always using a little bottle to wipe my hands, and I thought, “Why not have that bottle with me?”, and then, I thought, “Why don’t I have a little wristband that has little pockets, and I would punch it, and it has the ability to dispense some sanitizer right there?”
So, if I start off maybe in Excel, which is a great way to do this, and have three columns, action, owner, and date, and I use this to write things down, so in the first row, I say, “Why don’t I create some drawings and text?” I am going to create a Ziploc bag, I am going to fill it with the sanitizer, I am going to cut it, I am going to heat it to close, I am going to wrap it as a band with some tape, and then I am going to put some very fine slices in the plastic so that, upon pressure, it will perforate in the direction that I want. I am going to do that this weekend, and that is me.
But, the second thing is for the action, I am going to give it to my children to test out during the day. The owners of that will be the kids, and I want them to do it while they are shopping, not in school. After that, No. 3, I will get some feedback and evaluate the bands, and I am going to do that when they get back from shopping. Then, No. 4, what I am going to do is assess the actions with feedback from the difficulties, listing those key problems, and I am going to do that right after the weekend, and I am going to loop through this.
It is simple enough, right? This is just a plan for continuous improvement thinking, and you will be surprised by putting this in Excel to start off with an idea how you can insert rows, delete rows, or create an action checklist, but really, it is planning on how to improve something.
Tool #2: Input/Output
Why don’t we move to the second tool, which I would say uses a little bit more creative thinking, if you will? So, in Topic 2, tools and examples, we will do Tool No. 2, called input/output. This tool is a lot like the morphological matrix as a convergent tool, and we discussed this in Episode 2 and associative thinking in Episode 4. It combines morphological matrix and associative thinking. This is used to make improvements based upon where you are and where you want to go.
What you do is create four boxes, labeled “input,” “bridge the gap,” and “output,” and put those at the bottom left to right, and above “bridge the gap,” put a box called “specification.” What happens is the group diverges in a list of inputs and specifications, and I will give you an example of this, and then the group works together to take an input and a specification and come up with some idea to bridge the gap, and then, what you will do is list all those improvements as you go.
Now, let’s take the example in this continuous improvement tool input/output to improve a car. Let’s go into the input box and diverge some things that we are going to do to improve a car window. So, someone may say, “Let’s use solar energy as one of the inputs. How about the dashboard? Let’s get that involved in the input somehow. Let’s use the passing indicators around the mirrors that you’re about to pass somebody, and you can see it flash, saying ‘Do not pass, there is a car on your left or right, and you can see that in your mirrors.” Let’s say the specifications are diverged as well. “Easy to use, almost automatic” is a specification of our improved car window. Make sure it does not consume a lot of power, and always keep safety in mind. We will diverge a set of these specifications.
So now, what we do is choose an input and choose a specification that seems to go with that input. So, we are going to choose “use solar energy,” but we are going to combine it with “low power consumption.” You see how we are using associative thinking here, using solar energy and low power consumption to improve a car window, and the thought immediately comes to mind is using some sort of photo gray concept. As an output now, to bridge that gap, let’s develop a driver’s-side window with photo gray to get darker as the sun comes out. So, we are improving our car window using the input of solar, the specification of low power consumption, bridging the gap with photo gray, and then coming up with an output.
But now, we want to do more and continuously improve this even more. So, in the same list of input specifications, let’s use passing indicators as one of the inputs, and why don’t we choose the specification of keeping safety in mind? And then, when we are thinking about safety and passing indicators, we are recognizing that the photo gray may get so dark that we might not see the blinking lights on the mirrors for safety when a car goes by. So, why don’t we bridge the gap with the pic-in-a-pic idea, and why don’t we take the photo gray and make it less photo gray in a region of the car window so that we can actually see the indicator lights on the side view mirrors? So, this is improving the idea again.
Now, for every input and every specification, we continually build to improve that car window we began with. It is a very powerful tool. Note that this technique leverages both associative thinking and this morphological matrix we talked about, but it does it in small leaps.
Tool #3: Brain Writing
This third tool is really great, and it is great for introverts. It is called Tool No. 3, brain writing, under Topic 2, tools and examples, and we are going to make improvements based on the starting points. This particular tool produces large volumes of ideas, and also huge amounts of improvement. So, it starts off with each person being handed a paper. Let’s say it has three columns and 10 rows. What we do is we pass out to the group each of the papers so each person has one, and we ask the people to basically fill out on the first row, going from left to right, three improvements to the idea we are working on. Now, imagine if I have five people. That is 15 improvements right there.
Once they do that, then they take the papers and exchange them to the right, so now, the first person sends it to the second person, and the second person then looks at that top row from the first person, and they are asked to improve each one of those ideas by going down into the next row, and this swapping continues. So, what is happening here is it is very highly productive. If I have five people who start with fifteen ideas on three columns, we have a huge number of improved ideas now, and this usually takes about 15 minutes, and it is very slow as you go for more and more rows because the person has to read the first, second, third, and fourth rows before they can even make an improvement.
So, let’s try this. How might we use brain writing? Why don’t we take three people and just do three swaps, and why don’t we talk about how we might stop pollution? As my first person thinks about it, in the first row, columns 1, 2, and 3, they say, “Why don’t we recycle plastics, make a smartphone easy to dispose of, and make a disposable battery manager somehow?” We pass it to the second person, and what we do now is look at the results of all three people.
So, instead of talking about what each person does, we will actually talk about each column by itself. So, in the first cycle of recycling plastic, Person No. 2 improved it by saying, “Why don’t we label plastic for ease of disposal?” It is a very sound idea that we should know how we are going to recycle. But then, the third person looks at how to label plastics for easier disposal and has to improve that, and they say, “Why don’t we put a barcode on the recyclable so we can quickly look up on the internet to know what it is?”
In the second column, “Make a smartphone easy to dispose of,” the second person said, “That’s a pretty good idea, but why don’t we have an operating system app that allows me to hit the button and automatically put my phone up for sale in a resale marketplace?” The third person who looked at that said, “Why don’t we take that and do it one thing better? I’m always worried about cleaning my phone off, so we’ll have an operating system app that basically disposes or erases everything from my phone once I’ve found a buyer?” So, in this way I have a smartphone that is easy to dispose of with a market in place with a way to dispose of the data.
On the disposable battery manager, the second person said, “When I look at that, I am not quite sure what it is,” so they decided to take it in another direction because they used to be a coin collector. “Why don’t we create a coin collector type of storage?” You remember having the pennies by year in little cases, so why not create a case we can put the batteries in? Another person looks at that and says, “Why don’t we make storage like a banker’s box so the batteries can be disposed of separately as a group?” So now, what happens is I have a banker’s box type of storage, and I basically recycle it all at one point. This would certainly make it easier to recycle because I am making it more efficient, but it will probably also make sure that I am not just throwing my batteries in the trash.
Notice here that we are doing continuous improvement thinking in both directions. We are literally improving it from left to right, recycling plastics, making smartphones easy to dispose, and creating a disposable battery manager, but we are also improving it in the direction of each row by going from recycling plastics to putting barcodes, for instance, on the recyclable itself. Brain writing is a very powerful example. I cannot say enough about how valuable this is with groups.
Tool #4: SCAMPER
The next tool and example for Topic 2 is SCAMPER. As we had mentioned before, we talked about Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming, who also created some creativity tools. This is a great tool and uses a way to direct, as we talked about directing divergence and directing associative thinking. So, it is Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Other Uses, Eliminate, and Rearrange and Reverse. That spells SCAMPER, S-C-A-M-P-E-R. So, we are going to take that now, and in Topic 2, Tool 4, we are going to see how to use SCAMPER.
So, we are going to ask the question, “How are we going to improve an umbrella?” To substitute, we might think about taking the cap of an umbrella and it very hard so it will be useful as a cane. In other words, we will make it rubbery and hard so it does not slip. When we think about combining, maybe I can take the handle and create a formable rubber to improve the grip.
To adapt, I can make an umbrella that can open fully or 50%. Maybe that would be very useful in cities, when lots of people have umbrellas. We could modify by making the shaft expandable. Maybe it has a high, medium, and low setting. Putting it to other uses could be kind of fun. We could have the umbrella be used for defense. We all see Batman’s Penguin turn that into a gun. Or, we could eliminate and create various skins to eliminate the original color so I get my basic umbrella, and it comes with four or five skins, or I can buy skins to put over the umbrella to have it be one umbrella for three different seasons. And then, to reverse, I could have the umbrella collapse inside a tube instead of pulling it down around the sides.
Tool #5: Opposites
So, the last tool I want to talk about with Topic 2 is the opposites tool. We actually created this tool in ipCapital because we spent so much time working with engineers and technical people, and we recognized that a lot of these tools take some time to buy into, and we recognized almost immediately that engineers and technical people have huge backgrounds in critical thinking. They can tell you why something does not work so quickly, so we decided to use that.
So, to set this up, we created a list with two columns. The first column says “opposite” and the next says “reconstruction.” What we do is set the idea up and list how to make the idea worse. Usually, a list of five or 10 is okay, and we can play around with this. We can have ideas that make it worse just a little bit or make it almost impossible. What we try to do next is take each idea in the opposite column and try to reverse that and improve it because the opposite of an opposite gets you back to an improvement. This is a great tool for those people that are really critical thinkers because it can easily list what is wrong with something, and then they can leverage that. It is a divergence tool to essentially list all the things wrong with something.
So, why don’t we start off with a new idea here, and why don’t we say we want to help keep dry erase markers from drying out? So, let’s list some things that would make it worse. Why don’t we ship the markers without any fluid in them? Why don’t we have a cap that is such a poor seal, it will leak? Why don’t we have a whiteboard that will suck the ink out? Why don’t we have the body of the pen exposed so the ink can evaporate really quickly? Why don’t we have the cap and make it such that it sucks the ink out, which is not a good thing? You want it to stay in the body of the pen. Why don’t we just put a really small amount of felt inside? That would have almost zero wick so it would not come out. Even better, why don’t we put an alcohol-based system inside the ink so it evaporates so quickly that it dries and does not even stay on the board? Why don’t we have a drying agent or increased exposure of the tip area so it evaporates really quickly?
Look at it there. I have about 10 ways to make my dry erase marker worse. I wanted to make it so it would not dry out, and I have reversed it by filling in the column with all the opposites that make sure it always dries out. Now, we play this game. We go down and try to pick one of the opposites and turn it around. Let’s talk about the cap and the poor seal. Well, to turn that around, why don’t we have the cap be a seal? Why don’t we have some sort of ink fluid bag and somehow make the cap part of the added ink so we have a felt ink heavily in the cap so we have another source of the ink?
Why don’t we look at the whiteboard? How do we make our dry erase marker not dry out? That immediately made us think of having a whiteboard that is kind of a Magna-Doodle, where you have a pen that writes over a board that pulls the magnetic filings up. We have seen these as kids. How about a small amount of felt? Well, why don’t we have the felt be retractable and make a way that the cap, once again, can replenish the felt? Finally, for having the body of the pen always exposed, maybe we can pick that and say there is a way to create a transparent region in the body of the pen so we can actually see how much ink is left. By doing that, we will know when it is going to run out.
So, these are all ways of helping us make sure that our markers do not dry out. I do not know how many times that, as a person using a whiteboard, I take my markers and find out they do not work anymore. There has to be a better way, a better system. By the way, I can tell you I have been using this particular example of dry erase markers for over 20 years as well, and I was not surprised at all to see that many of these inventions actually have come to fruition. I remarked one time that when I bought some dry erase markers, there was a transparent window where I could see how much ink was left. So, that is the opposites tool.
So, in wrapping up, we talked about Types of Creativity No. 3, continuous improvement thinking. We talked about Topic 1, the history and theory. We talked about the novelty and operability issue and why we invented continuous improvements to begin with. And then, we asked where it fits in, and we recognized that it fits in with the seed of an idea before the real work begins. There are great examples of continuous improvement thinking over history, like James Burke’s Connection series, or even simple things that improve over 10 or 20 years, like the paintbrush to a roller brush to a spray paint pump.
We talked about five different tools. The first tool is action/owner/date, a very simple tool to plan an invention and to plan improvement. The second is input/output, a great example of how to use some creative associative thinking to use inputs and specifications to bridge the gap to outputs. Brain writing, No. 3, is a super tool and highly productive, and is great with introverts as well. Let three, four, or five people work for 15 to 20 minute to come up with 45 to 60 ideas that are all improved in directions in multiple ways. SCAMPER is a creativity tool for sure, but it is all based upon ways of improving around an idea. And then, finally, the opposites tool takes advantage of critical thinking. It is very useful for engineers and technical people.
Well, this has been a lot of time devoted to continuous improvement thinking. We recognize it is very valuable and important. In our next episode, we are going to move to get to the heart of the matter of inventing. So, since we have continuously improved ideas, as we have mentioned, these ideas are at a place where it is time to enable them. So, when we talked about, for instance, a dry erase pen that has a window in it to see the fluid, maybe that is pretty easily enabled, but as you get toward other ideas we talked about, like the battery charger box for disposing, there needs to be some more thinking about that.
And then, there are some ideas that need even further thinking. So, we are moving directly from continuously improved ideas to enabled ideas. We will talk about basically what enablement is and whether it is in the eye of the beholder or the judge to say if the idea works or not. This is a vast subject area for enablement that goes from how inventors go to the next level, maybe in their notebooks to prototypes, or how patent attorneys actually help enable it, which is one of the requirements of getting a patent. This is John Cronin from Invent Anything. Have a great day, and please try to continuously improve any ideas that you are working on.