Guest Commentary: Broken Pots and the Art of Innovation

This post was authored by Susan A. Nally, Lean Specialist for Roll Forming Corporation. Susan has a diverse background in technical writing, public speaking, and implementing Lean Strategies for manufacturing and health care industries. Susan has worked for Roll Forming Corporation since 1996 in the role of Continuous Improvement Lean Systems Specialist.  Her consulting experience in Lean spans across a diverse blend of manufacturing and health care environments, having consulted for small and large organizations across the maturation stages of Lean culture stability.  She is the owner and president of LeanForward Inc., which opened in 2003.    

She holds a B.A. from the University of Louisville (1988), a Masters in Clinical Counseling from Kent School (1991), a UK Lean Certification (1997), and Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt Certification. She has been happily married for more than twenty years and has been blessed with two children. Susan enjoys almost any activity in the great outdoors. She describes her personal priorities as the “Four Fs”:  faith, family, friends, and funding fun.



Imagine your organization as a huge, beautiful piece of pottery. It has taken you and your team years to painstakingly detail the clay, every last little inch. Each intricate detail tells its own story of collaboration, problem-solving, practical creativity. But, upon close inspection, you can find tiny cracks in the clay. Over time the cracks widen into fractures, and over time, however slowly, they spread. Left unchecked, the beautiful vase would break, but you attentively patch, retouch, and repair however you can. But the deeper the cracks, the more delicate the repair, and the more carefully your team has to step around the office. You might find yourself simply trying to turn the blemished parts away from public view, towards the wall, so that no one looks at them.

Whatever form your organization’s “cracks,” when did they first appear? What caused them? Are cracks spreading and growing faster than innovation can fix them?

If there seems to be no innovation left in your organization, in the clay itself, then perhaps it’s time to stop examining what’s wrong with the vase and look instead at the potter. But this doesn’t have to be a cause for discouragement; it may very well be an opportunity to “make a break” and change the company for the better.

KintsugiOn the topic of breaking pots, have a look at the photograph to the right. That’s an example of kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a gold-dusted lacquer resin. As a philosophy, it speaks to the breakage of pottery as a natural part of its history and something to be kept, not disguised. This skill of valuing something “broken” as something still greatly worth investment into the future will be essential to improving your company and creating a better organizational balance.

When thinking of how you want to recast your new company culture, it’s important to have a balance of engagement among your employees between the technical-minded (the “IQ” folks) and the people people (the “EQ,” or “emotional [intelligence] quotient”). The balance of these forces within your company will largely determine your capacity to solve problems, and in fact, without a good balance, your ability to innovate will be severely hindered. So let’s talk a little more about the needs of each type.

Technical (IQ) people have a high need for competence and correctness. When the senior architect, critical thinker, principal engineer, or equivalent person gets something wrong, it stings on a personal level. That pressure (natural for that sort of person) can often cause that already-exacting personality to clamp down on eliminating inconsistencies or lapses. But a certain amount of “sight” is lost on these people when this happens; they miss other details. Left only to these devices, the pots will start cracking, so to speak.

Empathetic (EQ) people have a high need for reflection and self-awareness and have a need to extend those faculties to the group or organization as a whole. Their understanding of the “human element” of situations is a potentially powerful resource, but their focus on relationships can cause accuracy and quality to slip, left only to their own devices, and again the pots begin to crack.

But already you can see how the types need one another! Probably you’ve already placed yourself as one sort of person or another (and maybe silently judged the other sort a bit), but you can see how they help to correct for one another’s shortcomings. Even better, behavioral science suggests that a good balance of these types may be essential for an environment of innovation. To go even further into detail: the scientific research suggests that a culture of innovation cannot be manufactured, but is rather the byproduct of a work environment that cultivates employee autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Guiding (and intentionally building) the emotional balance of your company isn’t an easy task, but in some ways it’s the most important work of an organization’s leadership. By letting go of the vase, by allowing it to break if it will break, you free your employees to take on projects that shoulder greater risk, but also much greater reward for the company. If you ever hear employees say ‘That’s an old problem, and we’ll never fix that one,’ you’re hearing the voice of a culture that prefers known failure to unknown success, and it’s time to make a change.

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