Creating a culture of innovation in manufacturing

Have you ever wondered why the letters on your computer keyboard are set up the way they are?

The familiar QWERTY pattern was first established by typewriter manufacturers over 150 years ago. They found that this particular arrangement caused the keys to stick less when people type quickly. The days of mechanical typewriters are behind us and modern computers can support any arrangement of the keys. In fact, there are more optimal keyboard designs, but the QWERTY pattern remains with us. It’s become “the way we do things”.

The case of the QWERTY keyboard is a classic example of something being so culturally ingrained that it is overlooked for innovation.

How do you do things in your organisation?

Culture is a distillation of the characteristics, values, beliefs and behaviours held in common by everyone in an organisation. That makes it a tricky thing to pin down, and even harder to change. Even the best business strategy becomes meaningless if your organisation doesn’t have a culture that staff believe in or the inspirational leadership required to make it happen.

How can you tell if your corporate culture will promote or hinder innovation? What are the characteristics of an innovative organisation, and what can we do to promote those characteristics in our own companies? In this blog we’ll try to answer those questions, so join us as we explore the cultural shift – how to create a culture of innovation in manufacturing.

Try something new (and don’t be afraid to get it wrong)

Remember the 1989 video game Tetris? The addictive game with a distinctive theme tune was designed to be endless, supposedly impossible to complete.

In January 2024, the BBC reported “A mind-boggling achievement in a classic video game reveals wider lessons about the extreme limits of human performance .” A 13-year-old in the USA achieved a score so high that it overloaded the game’s memory banks causing it to crash and in so doing he became the first player ever to “complete” Tetris.

How did he do it? He ignored the conventional techniques and developed a new way of holding the controls giving him the ability to manipulate the pieces faster than anyone else in the game’s 34 year history. Put simply, he tried something new.

An innovative manufacturing company needs to cultivate the mindset where mistakes are not feared but viewed as opportunities to grow. The important thing is not to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

Errors are beautiful. They are valuable and they must be treated as such. Perhaps we shouldn’t even use the word “error” or “failure”. How many design iterations does your development team go through before they arrive at the final product? How many prototypes must it have taken for Dyson to prove bags were superfluous to vacuum cleaners?

The process of creating and testing design iterations is a fundamental part of product development. Each rejected design is not a failure but a stepping stone to the final product. Innovative organisations might take this same approach with everything they do. We mustn’t be afraid to try something new. That’s the very definition of innovation.

How collaboration creates innovation

Having a great idea is just the start, you need to act on it. Innovative companies are agile and make decisions quickly when they need to. They will have streamlined processes and usually a flat hierarchy.

Collaboration is key to innovation. The idea of an eccentric genius working alone throughout the night and emerging with a revolutionary new product, is romantic but unrealistic in the modern world. There is great value in working together, sharing ideas, arguing, debating and bringing multiple viewpoints to a project. There’s nothing creative about life in an echo chamber.

The collaboration imperative will often lead innovative organisations to have rather blurry organisational divisions. Whereas a traditional manufacturing company has a hub and spoke structure. It would have very distinct departments all linked by a central management function.

Sales and marketing could be in different buildings. The engineering department might operate completely independently to the machine shop or the production area. You could walk through a door and find yourself disoriented by a totally different set up.

This arrangement creates silos and it’s not conducive to collaboration. Breaking down these rigid structures is itself an innovative approach to business administration.

Autonomy inspires creativity

Collaboration must go hand in hand with autonomy. Innovative companies give their employees the freedom to explore, experiment and implement ideas that can lead to innovations. Employee autonomy gives people a sense of ownership that in turn builds motivation and inspires creativity.

Beyond the individual level, work groups with autonomy can accelerate innovation. Autonomous teams have the freedom to manage themselves, making decisions quickly. The result is a faster, more efficient operation.

Autonomy also implies trust. The control systems within an organisation can have a massive influence on the development of an innovation culture.

Ask yourself, which behaviours do you reward in your organisation and which do you discourage? What activities are closely monitored and controlled? How you answer these questions will have a big impact on your culture of innovation.

The tools and resources for innovation

In our recent white paper Automate + Collaborate, we wrote about innovation and the power of getting everybody in the same space. Before the days of remote teams dispersed around the world, believe it or not, people would get together in a physical room and work out solutions to problems.

Nowadays, we can recreate that experience with modern collaborative technology. The “room” is rooted in the physical and the virtual worlds, but it serves the same purpose of bringing people together to debate, to discuss, the share ideas and collaborate.

Creating a culture of innovation means giving people the right tools, enabling the creatives of the world to do their best work. The power of smart digital technology is that it makes innovation so much easier, at every stage. With generative design and CAD/CAM tools we can test and evaluate limitless design iterations in the blink of an eye. Artificial intelligence can analyse and find patterns in enormous data sets, machine learning predicts and optimises the manufacturing process and IoT devices can provide real-time insights from anywhere along the value chain.

Having the right tools in place removes the barriers to innovation and inspires people to experiment without fear.

Creating a culture of innovation is not a simple task, it’s a long-term project with many more elements to it that we can cover in a short blog post, so now we want to hear from you. Does your organisation have a culture of innovation?  Do you agree with us? What did we miss out? Share this blog with your networks and let’s continue the debate online.



  • Renée Rädler

    Renée Rädler joined Hexagon in January 2017 as human resources director for the Manufacturing Intelligence division in EMEA before moving to her current global role in 2021. She has more than 20 years of experience in human resources roles at large international companies. Prior to joining Hexagon, Rädler was responsible for global post-merger integration at Dormakaba Group.

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