I came across a couple of good articles about Toyota improving its designs and innovation process. Business Week, for example, recently published "Fighting to Stay Humble".

"To be satisfied with becoming the top runner, and to become arrogant, is the path we must be most fearful of,"

That shakeup gives Watanabe a fleeting feeling of satisfaction. "There's been improvement," he says. "Big-company disease' has been receding." But then the self-congratulation is over. "There are so many challenges we need to address," he says. "Problems must be made visible."

Love the line about arrogance! When you become arrogant--you stop listening to colleagues and customers because you think that you know best. 

At Microsoft, I have access to the service, GetAbstract. It provides a five-page abstract on top books based on my personal preferences. Great service for someone that prefers to design software and blog :-) The last book abstract that I read was, The Elegant Solution, by Matthew May. Sakichi Toyota founded Toyota based on the philosopy of,

"...not seek new 'gadgets' or technological frills. Instead, he sought 'ingenuity in craft,' ways to perfect his work and make his innovations fit their social context, so he could manufacture things that people wanted.

The abstract summarizes the book with the following statement:

"Get everyone in your organization to be devoted to coming up with new ways to do things and serve customers better. Think like Toyota: don’t seek the single big idea that changes everything. Instead, look for 'the elegant solution – the singular and deceptively simple idea with huge impact.'

My father is a blue collar worker who constantly looks for a better way to do anything. He recently "retired" after 30 years as as a diesel mechanic for Yellow Freight to be a journeyman carpenter and builds water towers (I think he is a crazy tough old man!). Anytime I talk to him about his work, he tells me about his latest way of doing things better. At Yellow Freight he found new ways to optimize the job, cut costs, and work faster. Some of his co-workers didn't like his ambition because he cut down on their overtime hours. I know that his attention to detail and constant drive to improve quality was respected and appreciated by managers. One day I will write a blog about the good ideas Larry contributed to Yellow Freight.

Additionally, anyone can participate in finding "the elegant solution." It takes a individual mindset that is cultivated by strong hiring and leadership. Good organizations internalize it and reward people for taking risks and searching for better ways.

The abstract lists 10 rules to guide innovation. The last rule is my favorite:

Keep It Lean. Many companies assume that “more is better.” They add options and features, making products hard to use and burying their core functions. Instead, keep solutions lean. Focus on fulfilling customer desires and refuse to add anything else.

I have blogged about this before. Keeping things simple is hard. It is always more interesting to add a new feature than go back and fix a broken design that has been around from the beginning.