Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Innovation/Standardization-Opposite sides of the same coin?

Not long ago I was watching a Travel Channel show about how US fast food franchises had adapted their menus to different cultures.  McDonald's had beer and spatzl in Berlin, the McFalafel in the Middle East, and Kosher offerings in Israel.  The show demonstrated similar adaptations for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.  Does this erode the standardization argument?  I think not.
The show also made the point that each restaurant offered their "classic menu" in addition to the local customized offering.  The standard classic menu was the start point for local adaptation.  I've long felt that standardization is the source of innovation.  Without a common base there is no way for an overall system to improve. 
Clearly, there are differences between fast food franchises, retail activities and other enterprises.  That said, I found the same theme true in the US Army.  In a series of progressive leader development interventions that punctuate an Army officer's career, one is taught doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures...approved ways of accomplishing common tasks.  Of course when one gets to the field the "school solution" might not work....often because the situation is so different.  A great strength of the US Army is it's ability to adapt based on the skill and inventiveness of its officers and non-commissioned officers and not be handcuffed by rigid adherence to the "school solution"....but it all starts with the standard baseline.  In fields as varied as fast food and military operations standardization is the source of innovation.
What does this mean to the global leader?  I think it means that the leader has to relentlessly drive toward standardization....absolutely insist on the base case... AND be prepared to adapt to a local situation.  Knowing when to adapt is one of the elements that makes leadership an art and not a science.

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