Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Is expertise really the enemy of innovation?

I think not, but is tip #15 from Stephen Shapiros’s 2011 book Best Practices are Stupid. He blogged about it in an August 31, 2016 post titled Innovation Minute #20: Expertise is the Enemy of Innovation. (Titles of his posts appear at Alltop Speaking). Stephen explained that:

“The reason why is, the more you’ve thought about a topic, the harder it is for you to think differently about that topic.

So, if you’re an expert in a function, like HR, finance or sales, it’s going to be hard for you to think differently about that. If you’re an expert in an industry, like hospitality, financial services or manufacturing, it will be difficult for you to think differently about that.”

Alexander Pope’s old adage that a little learning is a dangerous thing likely is more correct. I instead think that expertise is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for innovation.  

If you are dogmatic and rigid, then expertise MAY be the enemy of innovation. But those of us who have done research for a living know how to be flexible and creative. My first career included seven years of applied research at the Climax Molybdenum Company lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were lots of creative people in that lab with a wide variety of expertise. Two stories illustrate how expertise leads to innovation.

One of our older technicians, Bob Besore, had once designed production tooling at Garwood Industries. In our mechanical testing lab we had a fracture test apparatus that (as is common in research) had been adapted from other tooling we already had around. But setting it up took repeated measurements and several minutes of adjustment with a wrench to align the differently sized and shaped upper and lower plates mounted on the fixed and movable heads of the electrohydraulic testing machine.

A supervisor asked Bob if he could make an easier to use version. He said sure I can, but I need to start over from scratch. A top view of what he designed is shown above. The new precision-ground plates were the same size and shape. A precision-ground U-shaped coupling fixture slid over both plates to locate them in perfect alignment. Then a series of cap screws were tightened with an air wrench, and in under a minute it was ready to use. These days what Bob had designed is described under the topic of lean production as a Single-Minute Exchange of Die (SMED).   

Another example is the 1989 U.S. Patent # 4,832,757 by Thomas B. Cox and me (Method for producing normalized Grade D sucker rods). Sucker rods are what connects between the horse head pumping jack you see in oil fields and the pump mechanism located at the bottom of the well. The high-strength Grade D usually is produced from plain carbon steel via a heat treatment  involving austenitizing, quenching and tempering. Lower strength rods are normalized - austenitized and just air-cooled. We showed that carefully chosen normalized manganese-molybdenum alloy steel compositions also could produce acceptable properties. This research was begun during the 1980s drilling boom, when there was a high demand for rods. We wanted to let rod producers who were set up only for heat treating lower strength rods (and thus didn’t have a quench tank and tempering furnace) make high-strength rods too. 

The general approach of replacing a carbon steel with an air-cooled alloy steel had previously been used at the Climax lab for other products, like dual-phase steel sheet for automotive applications. We used our lab’s collective expertise in hardenabilty to select the right steel compositions. 

The image of a wizard was adapted from a 1901 Puck cartoon at the Library of Congress, and the painting of a laughing fool came from Wikimedia Commons.

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