Organizations shake and remake themselves to survive and thrive in the Digital Age. What critical conversations need to happen? What processes need to change? How might the practice of collaborative innovation help people find their way forward?

This past fall our columnist the innovation architect Doug Collins began to tell the tale of how the Dirty Maple Flooring Company came to embrace the Digital Age through the practice of collaborative innovation. The latest episode appears below. Readers may navigate the full series here.

Where in a Bald Statement of Fact Is Asserted

Let it be known that no meaningful progress has ever been made, absent the presence of an observant and inquiring mind that finds itself coupled to a lively personage: one with a proclivity for action.

Charlie Bangbang Goes to the Gemba

Charlie was a reader. The man devoured books. As a young boy, Charlie counted as one of his great discoveries the complete Hardy Boys series at his public library in Wasau. He spent two enjoyable summers swaying on the front porch swing of his house, joining the brothers as they solved the many mysteries that plagued what Charlie would have thought to have been their otherwise sedate, albeit fictional town of Bayport.

Later in life, Charlie found that his love of reading came to his aid in various, often unexpected ways. People at Dirty Maple came to see him as a credible source for the latest news on the lumber industry, milling, and flooring. He was happy—relieved—that Kaylee Jo had inherited an interest in reading, too, assuming such interests can be passed from father to daughter. Harry Potter replaced Frank and Joe Hardy as the object of her wonder.

Certain books stuck with Charlie in his professional life. While at the Mt. Caca plant, Charlie came across Jim Womack’s The Machine that Changed the World, which documented the rise of Toyota on the strength of what would come to be known to all as lean. The mill was engrossed in the first, early steps of what would become its own lean transformation.

Charlie embraced the idea and the ideal of lean. He became a follower of Womack’s later observations on the evolution of the movement with the same, happy fervor with which he once embraced the Hardy Boys. Lean appealed to Charlie because the practice placed a premium on thoughtful enquiry: of learning how to ask the right, go-for-the-jugular questions on how might the operation reduce waste and how might the organization as a whole increase value to the client.

Charlie liked, too, lean’s concept of what makes for effective management: what should the managers at Dirty Maple be doing with their time? Here, lean placed a premium on coaching and teaching—helping associates to see the value streams, helping them to observe problems that led to waste, and helping them think in terms of increasing value to the client.

Lean had the wonderful characteristic of removing drama from the organization as expeditiously as a rutting buck deer removes the bark from a young birch tree in the fall.

Charlie used his influence to help Dirty Maple more fully embrace lean when the company was in the midst of its first experiments with the practice in the planking and planning work cells at Mt. Caca. He helped to ensure that experienced lean practitioners led the opening of Dirty Maple’s new mills in Brazil and Indonesia.

Charlie viewed the current work at hand, the challenge around demand forecasting, as a natural extension of Dirty Maple’s lean transformation. Demand, to Charlie, was very much tied to the value that Dirty Maple delivered to its retailer customers and the pricing it could offer them, which meant being disciplined in reducing unnecessary costs, or waste, in the lean parlance. Frankie and the finance group came over time came to find that lean served as an effective damper to the currency fluctuations that increasingly affected their results as they developed into a global company.

Get a better handle on demand and the company could further smooth the flow of work upstream through the warehouses and the mills, worldwide.

The Value Stream Defines the Challenge Community

Janet popped her head into Charlie’s office. “Frankie’s here, Charlie. You free?”

“He’s free,” Frankie replied, taking the liberty of answering Janet’s question, directly, as she walked into his office. Janet laughed and then returned to her desk.

“Hey, you.”

“Hey, what’s up?”

“I wanted to share with you a view of how we might define the community for our first challenge.” Charlie handed Janet a piece of paper that measured eleven inches tall and seventeen inches wide. The page depicted the following figure (figure 1).

Figure 1: the challenge community as a function of the value stream


“That looks about right to me, Charlie. That’s a helpful way of looking at things. Where did you learn to draw it?”

“It’s a simplified view of a value stream, Frankie. You may have seen them hanging on the walls at Mt. Caca when you were there. We use them to help people “see the whole” or the flow of work from the customer as the source of demand back through all the people and processes that touch what we ultimately deliver to them. This approach seems to tie nicely to our challenge, given we collectively want to take ownership of delivering more accurate demand forecasts.”

“Okay. Now, I see you have the consumer listed. You and me. Do we want to include them in our first challenge?”

“No. I don’t think so. Not at this time. It’s true that consumers drive demand. However, here, I think we’re more interested in the operational aspects of how to manage changes in demand, as opposed to why demand exists in the first place. That’s my thinking, at least.”

“Okay, so then we include our customers, the local retailers?”

“Yes, definitely. Those guys signal demand to us, which causes us to respond.”

“You think J.J. will be okay with that? The retailers don’t work for us, directly.” Frankie referenced J.J. Sourwood, Dirty Maple’s chief legal officer. Harry, J.J., and Charlie spent many a warm summer morning fishing for steelhead trout on the upper reaches of the Sheboygan River, where J.J.’s family kept a summer home.

“I’ll talk to him, but I think so. The thing is that, in the Digital Age, many of the old rules—the old conceits—no longer hold sway. I know these retailers carry competing brands. They may compare notes on the ideas we surface. Yet, at the end of the day, it does not matter. It just does not matter, Frankie. What good is an idea in a culture that doesn’t value collaborative inquiry and that doesn’t focus on value. Answer: nothing. Most of our competitors, thankfully, are still trying to best us by optimizing capacity utilization at the mills. They’ve got it backwards—completely backwards.”

“I think you’re right, Charlie. Let’s get about re-inventing ourselves, shall we?”

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Jarden Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, The Procter & Gamble Company, and Ryder System navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation.
Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.
As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series / Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).
Today, Doug works as senior practice leader at social innovation company Mindjet, where he consults with a range of clients. He focuses on helping them realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

Photo: 10 point buck; Whitetail Deer portrait from