Put It on Paper - Taking steps toward an innovation certification

by Peter Merrill

Last year, the ASQ Quality Management Division’s Innovation and Value Creation Technical Committee conducted its first evaluation of ASQ readiness for innovation certification.

The assessment indicated we should wait a while longer before launching a formal certification program. The two main factors in this decision were that within ASQ:

  1. We’re still seeing the body of knowledge (BoK) evolve in the field of innovation.
  2. There is not yet a common understanding of what is meant by innovation.

Significantly, the ASQ quality BoK only mentions TRIZ and design for Six Sigma, and sees innovation as an R&D activity. This is interesting because it seems to indicate innovation is positioned the same way quality was 20 to 30 years ago.

Quality found success when it moved beyond the quality department and became quality management. Innovation is moving beyond the R&D department, evolving into innovation management and becoming a willing partner with quality management.

Interestingly, one finding from the survey that was part of the committee’s assessment was that 71% of the respondents answered yes to the question: Do you see a recognized need for innovation management?

The definition of innovation

The starting point of any BoK is a definition of the focal point of that knowledge. I do a lot of work with the International Organization for Standardization Technical Committee 176, and my first role back in the 1990s involved terms and definitions. This gave me enormous respect for the people who do this work because defining terms in a way that is easily understood is a distinct skill.

You only need to look at the many definitions for quality that derive from the two main schools of thought. One sees quality as binary—you either deliver quality or you don’t. The other school sees quality as having degrees of achievement that lead to acceptable quality levels, which is a controversial topic among quality professionals.

We’re just beginning this debate in the world of innovation, and as a result there are many adjuncts to the word—radical innovation, disruptive innovation and sustaining innovation to name just three.

One of the great thinkers in this area is Harvard University’s Clayton Christensen, who sees innovation as something that enables a person to do something more easily. I like that approach because it focuses on the final deliverable. It also ties into the root of the word "in-nova-tion" or "in a new way."

For certification purposes, there needs to be an accepted BoK for innovation, so the Innovation and Value Creation Technical Committee developed a list with seven primary areas. There are also seven secondary areas that dovetail with existing areas of the quality BoK. I stress that this list is evolving, and the committee will continue to work on its content over the next couple of years. The primary areas are:

  1. Innovation process.
  2. Innovation culture.
  3. The innovative organization.
  4. Innovation manager.
  5. Innovation risk assessment.
  6. Innovation techniques.
  7. Innovation tools.

1. Innovation process

For quality professionals, process is the most comfortable entry point to innovation. The first issue that arises is the scope of the process. Many think the process starts with a great idea, but more people are realizing the starting point is an unfulfilled customer need—usually one the customer has not recognized.

There are many terms used to describe market opportunity, including white space, blue ocean and green field. I prefer green field, which is a widely used business term describing that which has not yet been touched.

Having found the opportunity, the next step in the process—finding potential solutions—is sometimes referred to as diffusion, a term I find passive. I prefer the term ideation, which is increasingly used in this step and captures the concept of finding an idea.

But ideas are not necessarily sound solutions, which is why the next step of development is necessary. The final step, delivery, recognizes that innovation is not complete until the new solution is in the user’s hands. Many people see this process as cyclical rather than linear because innovation never stops.

2. Innovation culture

Culture is the aspect of innovation that intrigues almost everyone and is more difficult to define in a BoK. Process-oriented people often feel uncomfortable when human factors are introduced, yet W. Edwards Deming and Philip B. Crosby placed significant emphasis on a quality culture. Deming said, "Drive out fear,"1while Crosby said, "Appreciate those who participate."2

The paradox with an innovation culture is that it must be creative and analytical depending on where you are in the process. This raises another issue: the confusion that arises between creativity and innovation. It is now accepted that creativity is only part of the innovation processes, but it is the important part that gets things started.

A creative culture involves exploration, collaboration and experimentation. It is loose and free, and it operates best in a flexible organization. The execution facet that is the other part of the innovation culture is project and process-driven, and is much more akin to the process culture within the world of quality.

3. The innovative organization

Becoming an innovative organization is where the real challenges arise and where it becomes more difficult for the innovation BoK to be prescriptive because it’s bound to vary for small, medium and large organizations.

Generally, large enterprises have the most difficulty in allowing innovation to take place because they have developed strong codes of behavior. But some essential principles are emerging.

The person running an innovative business unit within a large organization probably needs to report at a higher level than usual with the parent organization. Outsiders often have more success in running an innovative unit because they are less bound by conventional behavior.

4. Innovation manager

I have talked about the role of an innovation manager in a previous column,3 so it doesn’t make sense to repeat that content here. I will, however, remind you of something Joseph M. Juran said: "You plan and manage quality in the same way as you plan and manage finances." This has great bearing on the role of the innovation manager.

Quality and finance are indicators of business performance, and I’ve always maintained the two should be integrated for reporting purposes. You could say finance is about the past, quality is about the present, and innovation is about the future. Food for thought: The innovation manager is reporting on the future of the business.

5. Innovation risk assessment

Effective risk assessment and risk mitigation are fundamental to successful innovation, so the innovation BoK must delve deep into this area. We are starting to see some of the overlap with the quality BoK because effective quality management focuses on mitigating risk in the organization’s primary risk areas.

This is usually called prevention, which involves eliminating the root cause of potential or future problems. Innovation applies the principles of prevention to the future of the business in the form of its offering to the market. Risks must be calculated, which means collecting good data during the creative phase of the process. That can be a challenge because data collection does not come easily to creative people.

6. and 7. Tools and techniques

The area quality practitioners will probably be most comfortable with are the tools and techniques of innovation. I lumped these together because there is often overlap between the two.

This is where we see many familiar tools and techniques of quality, such as the Kano diagram, quality function deployment and problem solving. But innovation has brought a different spin to activities such as problem solving by recognizing the importance of engaging both sides of the brain, not just the analytical side.

I find this refreshing and exciting. Twenty years ago, quality was a field of revolution. Now, it has become too set in its ways. Another revolution would do us a world of good.

We then come to the areas of the quality BoK in which innovation interfaces with other strongly established quality functions:

  • Effective supply chain management is essential because a new offering is likely to involve new suppliers. This also involves open market innovation, which advises against using your suppliers only for products and services. Use them for ideas, too.
  • The design process needs a fresh injection of creative thinking. All too often, so-called design is just the reconfiguration of an existing design.
  • At an organizational level, strategic planning must have innovation as an integral component.
  • Finally, and in some ways most importantly, you must be able to audit the innovative capability of an organization.

Clearly, the innovation BoK is still evolving, although it’s already obvious that it overlaps with much of the existing quality BoK. There is work still to be done, but I am confident that in the not-too-distant future, innovation certification will be a reality.


  1. W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, MIT Press, 1993.
  2. Philip Crosby, Quality Is Free, Mentor, 1979.
  3. Peter Merrill, "Time for a Change," Quality Progress, July 2012, pp. 42-43.