Innovation is Nothing but ECRS

Kirby Ferguson explains in a TED video that Everything is a remix. What seems new is actually something old, but changed. This is a familiar idea in the continuous improvement field, and a place of significant overlap with the nuts and bolts of innovation.

For the latest web 2.0 startup to the electric car company Tesla Motors to Andy Warhol to the greatest musicians across the years, innovation was in fact nothing but ECRS (and of course hard work and chance). The letters ECRS stand for a work analysis and redesign method originating in industrial engineering and commonly used as part of kaizen. The work is observed and the observer looks for opportunities to improve by taking steps to eliminate, combine, rearrange or simplify each step.

In the field of process improvement, and possibly of management itself, Toyota has been the greatest innovator of the past century. Yet Toyota gives ample credit to its teachers Deming, Ford, Taylor, Gilbreth, the Departmetn of War (TWI), Piggly Wiggly, Toyoda Loom Works and others. Taken apart piece by piece, almost none of the Toyota Production System or what we call today Lean manufacturing was originated by Toyota. It was synthesized as the result of ECRS. Toyota eliminated parts of their ideological forebearers’ contributions which were not suited to Toyota, combined and rearranged these in ways to fit the needs of Toyota and its customers, and in many cases vastly simplified these elements through repetition, practice and refinement.

This is not to say that Toyota has created nothing original, or to imply that a remix of the ideas from within and without the organization somehow reduces the achievement. In terms of building a remix of ideas into a robust and portable management system, nobody has done it better. The accusation of Japanese manufacturing a few decades ago was “they copy and perfect” as if this was a bad thing. Is it more noble to copy and not perfect? To not copy and not perfect? Of course, to not copy – to originate and perfect – is the ideal, but those accusers were not even committed to perfection, as few still are.