Canadian Plastics

To think “out of the box” get out of the box

The red-hot issue for managers at both large and small companies these days is how to nurture a creative, innovative culture in the workplace. "We do it this way because we've always done it this way"...

June 1, 1999   By Michael LeGault, editor



The red-hot issue for managers at both large and small companies these days is how to nurture a creative, innovative culture in the workplace. “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way”, just doesn’t get it anymore. In order to chart the kind of growth most companies would like to achieve, one needs, at a minimum, to anticipate change. The elite companies of course go much further than the minimum–they create the change and watch everyone else react. Still, while most managers readily concede the need to foster and capitalize on creativity, the vast majority do little more than give lip service toward encouraging and rewarding creative company cultures.

The sudden emphasis on boosting creativity is not a fallout from the latest trend in corporate feel-goodism. Rather, it has been recognized that creativity creates tangible market value. A recent book, Intellectual Capital, by Thomas Stewart, notes the growing acceptance among top managers that it is knowledge, not plants and equipment, that distinguishes corporate winners and losers. To make his point, Stewart compares the performance of an old-line industrial company, IBM, with a knowledge-based enterprise, Microsoft Corp. Even though IBM’s annual revenue is more than fifteen times that of Bill Gates’ software company, Microsoft’s stock capitalization is much higher. Conclusion: the market perceives that Microsoft organizes and marshals its creativity much better than IBM.

Large, Fortune-500 sized companies can often initiate a certain amount of creativity with significant R&D budgets, economies of scale and strategic alliances. Smaller companies typical of the plastics processing industry have to be more, well, creative.

At smaller companies, the main obstacle to creativity in the workplace appears to arise from good-intentioned efforts to address another hot-button issue–productivity. In order to meet productivity targets, today’s typical company must run lean, that is, with the minimum amount of people to do the maximum amount of work. Ironically, while such a practice may maximize productivity, it also may destroy any chance for creative, innovative value-added gains sought by the marketplace: people running flat out to get product out the door are not going to find ways to reduce scrap or shorten design lead times.

The selection of companies I visited on my recent trip through Western Canada all appear to have found a way to balance productivity with creativity. If anything, the long-term emphasis at these companies is on creativity. From Glas Aire’s use of a new thermoforming technology to Sharp Plastics’ 83 patents for swim goggle design, the attitude seems to be ‘let’s first find a way to do this better, then we’ll worry about maximizing output efficiency’.

Not that there aren’t creative companies in Toronto or Montreal, but I’ve noticed creativity seems to play a larger role in the mindset of companies in the Atlantic or Western regions. My theory is that creative thinking is a necessity, not a luxury, for companies on the regional fringes, where business doesn’t necessarily walk through the door as a result of being close to the action of the industrial heartland.

It’s not rocket science. Creative companies, whether they’re in Quebec or British Columbia, are creative because top managers make creativity a priority. They hire a trouble shooter. They cross-train their employees for maximum flexibility so their operation doesn’t gridlock if someone is away. They encourage downtime and believe in the radical concept of leaving one’s cubicle to shoot a game of pool or, even better, saying “adios” to the spouse for a few days and hitting the open road.

e-mail: mlegault@southam.ca


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