Lean and nurturing inventors

In the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine make the case against patents. They argue that the current system in the US creates more litigation than innovation and has its primary effect is to “encourage large but stagnant incumbent firms to block innovation and inhibit competition.” They are, however, short on proposing alternatives, and those who have worked in economies where ideas are instantly stolen are wary of abolishing the most powerful form of intellectual property protection we know. Official recognition and law are public policy and legal issues that I don’t want to get into here. What I would like to discuss here is what companies can do on their own to take advantage of the inventors in their midst in the current context.

I remember seeing a clever semi-automatic device to staple fabric onto a board in a car door panel assembly line. Hormoz Mogarei, who ran this line, told me that he had simply asked a technician to “invent something,” and this was what he had come up with. It was an invention. It was the brainchild of an individual, not a team, and it was of a broader scope than a suggestion that would fit on a one-page form. It required weeks of work, that the technician had to do in addition to his normal duties, and experimentation, which required some tooling and equipment.

To facilitate this activity, we need to give some thought to what constitutes an invention and who inventors are. In this post, we consider the following:

Sakichi Toyoda versus Philo T. Farnsworth

...The crowning acheivement.
…The crowning acheivement.
The starting point...
The starting point…

Sakichi Toyoda spent 30 years improving the loom, one of the oldest machines known to humans. Step by step, he went from the wooden, manual loom his mother operated in the 1890s to a powered loom with automatic shuttle change that stopped whenever the yarn broke in 1926. In the official history of Toyota, the sale of the license of the Toyoda Type G loom to the UK’s Platt Brothers provided the seed money for Kiichiro Toyoda to start Toyota and build cars, and Sakichi Toyoda’s approach became the basis for Toyota’s approach to automation, known as jidoka (自働化). Today, Sakichi Toyoda is honored in Japan as a great inventor.

Philo Farnsworth with 1935 TV set.
Philo Farnsworth with 1935 TV set.
Philo T. Farnsworth, in a few short years as a young man, invented television, successfully demonstrating it in San Francisco in 1928, two years after Sakichi Toyoda had perfected his Type G loom. Farnsworth’s invention, however, was not the result of a sequence of small improvements on an existing device; instead, it was a breathtaking technical breakthrough. Television had been imagined in science fiction, but no one prior to Farnsworth had a clue on how to make it happen with electronics. Farnsworth’s key idea was a way to transform 2-dimensional images into a 1-dimensional stream of electronic signals and back. As a farm boy growing up in Utah, he covered his father’s 2-dimensional fields by plowing 1-dimensional furrows, and this pattern gave him the idea of scanning a screen line by line with a beam of electrons.

Other international inventors

John Harrison
John Harrison

Sakichi Toyoda and Philo T. Farnsworth were both creative individuals, who worked in different ways. One was Japanese and the other one American, but it does not mean that people like Sakichi Toyoda are unique to Japan nor people like Farnsworth to the US or Europe. John Harrison, for example, was an 18th-century Englishman who spent decades refining clocks until his fifth version was precise enough to stay within one second of London time while circumnavigating the globe with James Cook in 1772-75, thereby making it possible for the first time to measure longitude accurately at sea. Today, James Dyson in the UK seems cut from the same cloth, taking mature products like vacuum cleaners or fans and improving them. Conversely, Fujio Masuoka’s flash memories and Kokichi Mikimoto’s cultured pearls are Japanese inventions that qualify as breakthroughs.

John Harrison’s generations of clocks

Toyoda and Farnsworth are two extreme types of inventors, and there are many in-between, in many countries. The nature of inventions was systematically investigated from patents by Genrich Altshuller in Russia, who abstracted from them the set of 42 guiding principles that he called TRIZ. But, if inventiveness is randomly spread among individuals across the globe, there are cultural differences between countries on the way inventors are treated and which kinds of inventions are most valued. Japanese school children are told about Sakichi Toyoda; American schoolchildren, about Thomas Edison and Eli Whitney. It is difficult to imagine that it does not influence the choices adults make and what they most value in others.


Toto is a Japanese maker of toilets, a stable, 300-year-old technology, but when I visited the Toto factory in Kitakyushu, I was surprised by the number of improvements they had made. In the 1980s, they introduced the washlet, a toilet with a built-in water jet. It now accounts for half the installed base of toilets in Japan and a recent version was featured in the Hollywood movie The Joneses. Other Toto inventions include a more slippery coating for toilet ceramics, a tankless toilet for cramped living spaces, and a silent flush system for hotels. It is not the mouse, graphic user interfaces or the worldwide web, but these incremental innovations make life just a little bit easier for consumers, enough in any case to make a supplier competitive.

It is not an either/or proposition. We don’t have to give up breakthroughs in order to get incremental inventions or vice versa. We can have both because they don’t come from the same people, and it does not take much, because inventors cannot help themselves. Examples like Rostislav Alexeyev with his hydrofoils or Alexander Kemurdzhian with the Lunakhod rovers show that their spirit cannot be crushed, even in an environment as hostile as the Soviet Union, and that inventors will invent even in the absence of any reward. The Soviet Union even produced meta-inventor Genrich Altshuller, who was rewarded for TRIZ by six years in a labor camp. Still, few people are as valuable as inventors, both to companies they may work for and to society as a whole, and we should do what we can to recognize and encourage them.

Thimonnier's 1829 sewing machine
Thimonnier’s 1829 sewing machine

Some inventors, like Thomas Edison or Sakichi Toyoda, were savvy business people who were not only recognized but profited from their inventions. Others, like Nikola Tesla or Philo Farnsworth, did not do as well. One whose spirit was crushed by the society he lived in was Barthélémy Thimonnier, who invented the sewing machine in France in 1829. He used his own machines in a factory to make military uniforms, but the tailors who used to do this work manually rioted and burned his factory, following which he died in poverty.

As an industry, sewing machines did not take off until the 1850s in the US, where they played a key role in the refinement of interchangeable parts technology and the development of machine-tools.

Recognizing inventors

The most obvious form of recognition is a patent. Inventions made by employees on the job are owned by the company and therefore royalties flow to the company rather than to the inventors, but the patents are still coveted badges of honor and resume enhancers. The Caterpillar transmission plant in Peoria, IL, has a wall several hundred feet long that is covered with plaques commemorating patents for new features on earthmover transmissions. Each plaque is an engraving of the top page of the patent, and bears the names of the inventors. It both impresses visitors and shows inventors that their contributions are valued.

While new products or features, and sometimes new processes, are patented, improvements to work methods or production line designs usually are not, but recognition can still be given in both symbolic and tangible form. Symbolic recognition can be awards given in ceremonies, plaques, special marks on employee badges, articles in the local press, etc. The key is that they should be tailored to the local culture and the individual. What is valued in a culture may offend in another, and some enjoy being singled out among their peers while others are uncomfortable in the public eye. The tangible rewards are usually bonuses, but they must be sized just right to convey appreciation without cutting off the recipients from peers or turning all employees into bounty hunters.

Management must also be careful to recognize the actual inventors. In any group, there are many more who are ready to claim credit for inventions than actual inventors. An invention is fundamentally an individual rather than a team process. A team is often necessary to implement an invention, but its seminal idea is from a single human brain, and you must be careful not to mistake whose it is. Instead of actual inventors, many patents bear the name of a supervisor whose only contribution may have been to discourage the real inventor’s efforts. In terms of effect, recognizing the wrong people is worse than not recognizing anybody. Avoiding that mistake requires management attention, but the inventions are worth it.

Facilitating invention

Is there something that can be done beyond creating a favorable environment for inventors, by giving them resources and recognizing their achievements? Altshuller thought so. He believed that knowing and applying the rules of TRIZ could make inventors more productive and turn more engineers into inventors. Altshuller died in 1988, but his work is being continued by others, like Nikolai Shpakovsky in Russia, Japan and Korea, with his concept of product evolutionary trees , and Roni Horowitz’s ASIT. To my knowledge, these methods are not massively used, and, where they are used, it is in product design and development, not manufacturing.

Engineering Sandbox
Engineering Sandbox

In manufacturing, if you provide an “engineering sandbox,” organize for people to tinker in it, and provide some form of recognition, you will get results like the automatic door panel stapler. The engineering sandbox is a space set aside and outfitted with the resources needed for tinkering, experimentation, and prototyping. It is used both by individuals and teams. In Wikipedia, the space you can use to draft an article or an edit before publishing it is called your “sandbox,” and it is similar in concept to the engineering sandboxes you find in factories, that are often called “Kaizen areas” even though the experimentation that takes place can exceed the scope of what is commonly designated as Kaizen. This space is best located in a secluded area, away from heavy traffic and prying eyes and, as it is shared by multiple individuals and teams, access to it must be managed accordingly and often takes place outside of regular working hours. Chihiro Nakao calls this activity “moonshine.”

Next topic: Managing the inventions

Once your employees have made inventions, you need to decide how best to use them. You can patent an invention to make accessible to others for a royalty for a time, you can keep it a trade secret with the goal of making sure you are the only one to use it, you can give it to a third party to exploit commercially, or you can publish for anyone to use free of charge. And, while you are trying to decide what to do, others may steal it and get away with it.

This is a whole other topic, and the best course for a company to follow is often counter-intuitive.