Keeping an eye on safety

Observation and measured persistence – the key to inspiring innovation.

The key to real innovation is in observation and identifying problems worth solving. Unfortunately, too may innovators persist with ideas that may have some merit but, really, are the problems identified worth solving?

More to the point, is the technology that can enable these innovations available in the first place?

Indeed, many people are driven by the teaching that commitment and persistence will lead to success. Persist and you will succeed we are told. But how true is this, does persistence really win in the end?

Pros and cons

I have always lived by a saying I coined many years ago: “Persistence is an important element of success, persistence is an essential element of failure”.

If the idea is fundamentally bad or the technology not achievable, no amount of persistence will make it good. Worse still, many are so enamoured with their ideas that they invest heavily in developments and patents only to then fail and go broke.

Persistence needs to be moderated with a high degree of common sense and objectivity, and the ability to let go and know when to stop. It’s not a failure if you stop before it’s too late. It is a failure if you persist beyond the point of sensibility. Having said that, capturing and holding the nub of a good idea is another matter.

A classic example

A classic example of this was an inventor who many years ago recognised the opportunity for a cordless home phone, one that did not need to be tethered to the base with a cable.

“If the idea is fundamentally bad or the technology not achievable, no amount of persistence will make it good.”

Of course, this was a wonderful idea. The inventor toiled for years trying to implement this invention, one that required a technology that was not yet possible. He even toyed with developing a high-tech radio-signalling technique that was way beyond both his financial and technical capability.

Many times he was advised to park the idea until the time was right but, undaunted, he persisted to the point of financial collapse when reality dawned. It was more than a decade before the technology that could enabled this to be fulfilled was available, but by that time the inventor had both exhausted his passion and funds.

The inventor persisted far too long with his idea in the light of huge technical and financial difficulties.

Patience is a virtue

Perhaps he should have saved his money and quarantined the thought until such time as his idea was achievable. The nub of the idea was excellent but the technology not yet possible.

With that in mind let us explore the way we can identify a good idea, or problem worth solving in the first place, before applying the tools of innovation and engineering to find a solution.

Quite remarkably, the suggestion that you should explore your customers’ needs in search of a problem is a somewhat new in the pursuit of innovation. This simple notion of asking what the customer wants is embodied in so called Design Thinking, a movement that only swept the world during the past decade.

The idea of exploring customer needs is of course excellent, the problem is that the means of exploring such needs was lacking.

Don’t ask, just watch

The secret to identifying possible good ideas really lies in the art of not asking, but observing people’s behaviour. This is best done using the tools of “Opportunity Capture” where there are really only five things one needs to observe:

  • predictable activities
  • widespread activities
  • repetitious activities
  • emerging trends in activities
  • comparison between groups.

These are just the Seed of Opportunity capture with the entire opportunity scan process being embedded in a five by eight matrix that gives some 40 ways to explore the opportunity horizon. However, the above seeds alone will suffice if we just use them to observe behaviour.

Observation is, in fact, more important than asking people what they may need. Most people are unaware of the problems they encounter during their work and simply treat such difficulties as “just part of the job”. Imagine in days gone by a person using a bucket to draw water from a well. An observer may see this and invent a windlass, next a windlass powered a donkey, then the Archimedes screw and so on. Observation was always the key to these inventions.

Properly used, the observation approach makes it easy to identify opportunities, indeed disruptive innovations.

Problem solving

This brings to mind a problem that was pictured in our workshop manual in 1999. Finally, we have now resolved this and brought to market a remarkable and simple new disruptive technology. This idea was based on observation but at that time the solution was a “bridge too far”. We never lost sight of the target, persisted if you like, saved our money, and only acted when the technology and time was right.

To put this is context, fires in electrical switchboards and circuits almost always occur at terminations as joints become loose, corrode and resistance rises. Thermal runaway occurs with faults being termed a “Hot Spot” often resulting in fires.

For many years the approach to identifying these hot spots has included all of the ingredients that may qualify for an opportunity scan. Activities that were predictable, widespread and repetitious with thermographers worldwide annually taking single-shot thermal pictures inside electrical switchboards in an endeavour to find hot spots.

Timing is of the essence

Unfortunately, as good as this may have been at the time, a thermography can never be sure that when the picture is taken, the load actually causing the hot spot is even operating. It may be a water boiler that comes on early in the morning during off peak power rates, or a furnace, heat exchanger, heavy duty crane or elevator that only activates periodically. Who really knows what’s happening when the thermal image is captured?

The suggestion that a one-shot thermal picture, with unknown loads operating, can give you peace of mind that a building is safe from fire is certainly questionable. But this is the present approach in all developed countries worldwide.

Alternatives such as real time radio IOT alert devices are available. So, too, fibre-optic monitors that span many connections, fixed thermal cameras or wired thermocouples but these are simply not cost-effective for use across the myriad of switchboards and wires that found in every building.

It was the opportunity scan and observation of the potentially dangerous hot-spot situations, and the sheer population of switchboards, that led to the development of a newly-released technology.

A colourful solution

Costing only a few cents each, permanent colour change clips that change from purple to bright pink are now available and can be attached to every cable to indicate the presence of a hot spot, no matter when it occurred. Faults are now obvious the moment a switchboard is opened.

Switchboard monitoring, usually annually with thermal cameras fulfils many of the main criteria for an opportunity:

  • predictable
  • widespread
  • repetitious.

Taking this as a simple example of what an Opportunity scan can achieve, how many other safety related events do we see only periodically monitored that could be monitored in a more thorough fashion and thus lead to break through innovations?

  • Vehicle tyre pressure.
  • “Tag testing” of trade power tools only to find the tool being damaged and dangerous the very day after is passes all tests.
  • Smoke detectors.
  • Life jackets in boats.
  • Electrical appliance connections.
  • Gas leaks.
  • CO monitors for domestic heaters.
  • Water leaks and dripping taps.

The list is endless if we simple employ this opportunity scan approach to systemise the search for opportunities.

Observing the way people work, especially related to safety, is by far the most fertile ground for identifying problems worth solving, but persisting with an idea that is unachievable is a sure way to fail. Persist yes and capture the thought, but wait until the time and technology is right before acting

Roger La Salle, founder, Matrix Thinking

This story first appeared in issue 31 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine