Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

Formulating Questions as a Source of Continuous Improvement

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William Hewlett and David Packard - Founders of Hewlett-Packard

William Hewlett and David Packard – Founders of Hewlett-Packard

There is a common misconception that innovation stems from a single “ah-hah” moment. That may be true for the initial idea, but the great and influential leaders experienced long and often painful periods of development and extended periods of refinement before the ideas were manifested into a viable product.

In reality, most innovation is the direct result of a long series of continuous improvements, which serve to perfect both new and existing ideas. For example, there is a television show on the Science Channel entitled, “How It’s Made.” Each episode explains how three or four commonly used products are manufactured. They often showcase complex and automated production machines that produce large volumes of product. As my wife and I watch these programs, we often ask the question, “Who thinks up these intricate machines and complicated processes?” While modern engineers can now design complex production lines, they still remain the result of a long process of continuous improvements that are built upon each other, often over years of design, experimentation and development. Most of these machines were developed with one single automated step. Over time more steps, and more machines were added that ultimately created the entire automated processes one can physically observe today.

This complex engineering concept and its process can be said to originate with George Westinghouse (Westinghouse). “His methodology of observation and research, rough creation via stretching, then engineering drawing, followed by scale modeling, and finally scientific testing defines the discipline of engineering to this day. This pragmatic approach applied science to engineering. The title that is overlooked for Westinghouse is the father of industrial and manufacturing engineering…

Westinghouse had clearly evolved past the trial and error methods of many early Victorian inventors. He started to use science to narrow the scope of experiments needed. This is another example of Westinghouse’s pioneering in the methodology of modern research and development. Men like Edison wasted endless hours in trial and error experiments, while Westinghouse eliminated many trials by the application of science…

Invention was seen as a craft, which would become the discipline of engineering. Westinghouse, more than any of the great Victorian inventers, pioneered the discipline of the engineering craft. His approach would evolve into the corporate approach to research and development used even today.”

Continuous improvement and innovation doesn’t just apply to engineering and industrial production. Effective leaders apply it to all aspects of their business. Alfred Sloan (General Motors) stated, “I made it a practice throughout the 1920s and early thirties to make personal visits to dealers… visiting from five to ten dealers a day. I would meet them in their own places of business and ask them for suggestions and criticisms concerning their relation with the corporation, the character of the product, the corporation’s policies, the trend of consumer demand, their view of the future, and many other things of interest in the business. I made careful notes of all the points that came up, and when I got back home I studied them.”

Henry Luce (Time) “was able to succeed even in areas he knew little about, because he asked all the right questions, and he never stopped asking. For instance, Luce was an avid golfer, but when it came to baseball or boxing, he could not tell the difference between a diamond and a ring. But in launching Sports Illustrated, Luce undertook an intensive cram course in every sport he needed to familiarize himself with. He was determined to learn everything he did not already know, and that he might need to down the road. Luce appreciated the past, looked to the future, and asked all the right questions along the way. He never stopped asking what could be.”

  1.  Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr., George Westinghouse: Gentle Genius (Algora Publishing, New York, 2007) p. 59-60
  2. The Leadership of Alfred Sloan (CareerAge.com)
  3. Carmichael Evan, Lesson #5 Curiosity Never Killed the Cat (www.evancarmichael.com)

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011)

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Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
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Copyright © 2013 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

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