Brent Robertson knows good ideas can come from unexpected places, which is partly why he put two clients — one in architecture, another in manufacturing — together to learn from each other.
Robertson, a partner in West Hartford's Fathom, which helps organizations establish or reshape their identity and develop a strategy to carry that forward, says it's OK for executives not to know all the answers in today's fast-paced, rapidly changing world and to reach outside their comfort zone for new ideas.
There are two parts to it: "One is getting insight and expertise from places you didn't expect and the other is an incredibly important ability to bring human beings together to co-create," he said.
Robertson's unique idea was to bring together Willington Nameplate of Stafford Springs and New Haven architecture firm Svigals + Partners.
Willington, which makes durable nameplates for the automotive, aerospace, defense and industrial sectors that instruct, inform or caution, was looking for ways to be more creative. Svigals sought insight on incorporating elements of lean manufacturing into its business.
Both learned something.
"We typically would just look to our competitors or look to somebody else in manufacturing as a way to benchmark — that's how traditionally people do that," said Jessica Mitchell, lean leader and designer at Willington Nameplate. "We decided, 'Why should we go traditional? Why couldn't we look at some other industry that on the surface appears really different and see if we can learn anything from them?' "
As part of the collaboration, Willington learned to approach staff meetings differently to break the conversational ice and promote creative thinking through a simple, collaborative art exercise Svigals introduced. Willington was also inspired by Svigals to put a white board in its break room where employees can ask and answer company-related questions. It's meant to promote creativity and discussion during lunch and breaks.
Willington also planned to introduce a simple "talk and listen" dice game, created by Svigals, at a strategy meeting with management. Staffers roll three die, each of which has words prompting an employee to act or share something personal to relax the room and spark discussion. Willington was also able to examine its factory processes from a more creative context while looking for areas to improve — Svigals provided insight different than obtained on typical plant tours, Mitchell said.
Processes don't have to be those typically seen in books or online. They can also be developed internally to fit a company's individual culture, Mitchell said.
"You're not looking like everybody else because you're getting ideas from a totally different and unexpected industry," Mitchell said.
Svigals even noted Willington's scrap metal, now recycled, could be turned into sculptures produced by local art students, Mitchell said. The art could be placed in the community or the plant, the latter a twist younger job recruits might not expect.
"We're asking future generations that come in here, 'Hey, take a look at manufacturing, it's not as old and stuffy and traditional as it used to be — and look at what we create,' " she said.
There's a recruiting element to creativity, appealing to future generations, but creativity also is important for innovation, Mitchell said. It can help find solutions to important questions like: "How are we going to make our nameplates and labels withstand the test of time, how are we going to grow, how are we going to get better?" she said.
Martin Roth, dean of the Barney School of Business at the University of Hartford, said companies focus heavily on data analytics, but knowledge sharing can also come from tacit or informal data.
"That's really where the benefit of the conversations with these cross-industry colleagues comes into play," Roth said. "You're stepping away from the idea of, 'Let's continue to analyze the data that we have about our business or industry and step away into a world that's much more informal and conversational and start to utilize those conversations to be more creative and innovative,' " Roth said.
Ideally, companies don't choose codified or informal data, but utilize both because each has value, Roth said.
Svigals studied lean theories before meeting with Willington Nameplate, looking for ways to incorporate lean principles into its architecture business, but found most of the processes geared toward manufacturing, said Bruce Wujcik, an architect and associate principal at the firm.
Svigals saw value in the lean manufacturing approaches, but wasn't sure how to translate them.
Svigals sought from Willington "not so much what lean was, but what do you do with it, how does it work, how do you get it started and how do you make it something that is useful" and applicable to architecture? Wujcik said.
Because architects are always designing something new, they wouldn't appear to benefit from lean processes, architect Arturo Arroyo said.
But there are common items relevant to all drawings, he said, noting every building has doors, windows and other components to streamline.
The firm is talking to those who produce documents and review them, including clients and contractors, and engaging them, telling them about Svigals' lean efforts and using them as a resource as it documents buildings in a way that saves time and proves valuable to those receiving the documents, Arroyo said.
Svigals partner and architect Robert Skolozdra said being lean can free more time for creativity.
"It will hopefully [lead to] more profit because we're not wasting time on certain things, and it's allowing us to be more creative," Skolozdra said.