Don’t Procrastinate…Innovate!: The Why Factor

EP Editorial Staff | May 15, 2013

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By Ken Bannister, Contributing Editor

In 2011, Applied Technology Publications (parent of Maintenance Technology and Lubrication Management & Technology magazines) launched its first “Maintenance & Reliability Innovator of the Year” competition. The level of response we received for that inaugural competition overwhelmed us. Response for the 2012 competition was just as exciting, making it difficult for the judges to choose an overall winner and three runners-up. The 2012 competition, like the one in 2011, reconfirmed our belief that the spirit of innovation is alive and well—and working hard—in the maintenance and reliability community. It was reflected in all entries, each of which managed in one way or another to challenge the status quo and current orthodoxy regarding the true meaning of “innovation.”

In her book, The Power of Why, Amanda Lang questions and successfully answers how curiosity and the ability to ask “why” fuels change in both business and personal lives. She goes on to investigate the small child’s urge to question “why” at everything new in the world and how few parents continue to foster and sustain that curiosity, choosing instead to shut it down with a simple “just because!” retort. Moving into the school system, the curious and ever-questioning child, unless mentored by caring educators, can soon be muted—and frequently shunned by peers and teachers alike. 

Clayton Christenson, often referred to as the ”Father of Innovation,” published results of a groundbreaking study with co-authors Jeffrey Dyer and Hal Gregerson in a 2011 book The Innovator’s DNA—Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. The six-year study of more than 500 of the world’s top innovators concluded that the number-one attribute or discovery skill of any innovator is the ability to ask “why”—questioning the unquestionable! The book reasons that a manager often only asks “how” (i.e., “How are we going to speed up production?”) An innovator, conversely, asks “Why is production so slow?”

In the world of reliability, we’ve long used a simple, highly effective five-stage approach for getting to the root cause of failure. This “5-Why” process merely involves asking “why” the component or system failed, then questioning the answer with “why” for a total of five times. Often, the root cause can be found in fewer than five answers.

Innovators aren’t afraid to challenge common wisdom and are unaccepting of the “because we’ve always done it that way attitude.” In his book The Future of Management, Gary Hamel quotes a study that shows—regardless of what country they live in—only 14% of employees are highly engaged, and as many as 62% merely show up to work for the paycheck! In this “who cares” culture, the answer to making America great again is in the fostering of an environment that nurtures innovative thought and encouraging the asking of “why” or “why not.”

Hamel notes that “managers are the gatekeepers of innovation,” meaning they must be open to and work diligently to not only promote the “why” culture, but support ideas to fruition. Fortunately, we’ve seen many organizations—both end-users and OEMs—doing just that (including the 2012 sponsors of our award program, Dreisilker Motors and Scalewatcher). We thank them all as we highlight this year’s “Maintenance & Reliability Innovator” awards!

2012 Grand Prize Winner
Our “2012 Maintenance & Reliability Innovator” “Grand-Prize winner” received a “grand slam” from the judging panel—and is truly worthy of this year’s top award. Leading a team from WaveOn Technologies, Inc. (Osceola, WI) that included Charles Miller, CTO, and Suman Minnaganti, Project Manager, CEO Chad Erickson submitted “Lubricheck,” a unique, handheld “first alert” oil-condition testing device. As innovators do, the team had asked “why” there was no instant, reliable, easy method of spot-checking oil to know if its condition truly warranted a changeout. They then set out to build one.

Struggling to fund the costly design and development stage of their Lubricheck device, the WaveOn team turned to what could be considered a rather innovative approach for producing engineered products:  They took the advice of Charles’ teenage children and sought cloud funding through—which puts creators and backers together to collectively raise substantial amounts of venture capital funding one dollar at a time. The only caveat is that the project must reach its funding goal for the creators to receive their money. Money raised, the Lubricheck product hit the market in the second half of 2012. 

At the heart of the Lubricheck unit is a battery-operated sensor that sets up an electrical excitation field, which changes in a known manner when a fluid, such as oil, is placed on the sensor pad. When oil becomes oxidized, it also becomes acidic and will affect the electrical field differently than new oil. Lubricheck’s electronics interpret these types of changes and display them through a series of 10 LED lights that light up GREEN (when the oil tests OK), or AMBER or RED when it doesn’t (depending on the severity of condition problems and the urgency of a changeout). Although the unit is primarily designed for fleets and can be switched to analyze diesel or gas engine oil, it can also be used to check most lubricating oils. 

2012 Runners-Up
1. Doug Sackett, of Smith Brothers Oil (Smith) (Bartow, FL), submitted an innovative way to support the reliability programs of Smith customers by replacing old bulk oil tanks with new totes and a  “clean and fill” tote management system. When empty, Smith picks up the totes and takes them to its own facility to clean and fill with filtered oil. The oil is then “loop” filtered, checked with a particle counter and certified as clean before returning to the customer.

2. Martin Robinson, of IRISS Inc. ( Bradenton FL), submitted an innovation that made a good idea even better. IRISS took an already innovative electrical-panel polymer plastic infrared and visual inspection window and redesigned it into a lifetime-warrantied inspection window that’s impact-resistant, stays clear throughout its life and can be customized to any shape or size. This new product solves the limited life and visual clarity failures of previous inspection window materials, which makes it safer and less expensive over its life cycle.

3. Wesley Valverde of Lightning Bolt & Supply
(Baton Rouge, LA), submitted a wireless Customer Managed Inventory (CMI) solution for fasteners, fittings and MRO inventory replenishment. This unique scanner, provided free to the company’s customers who are on the program, can read all competitor inventory labels and uses an Apple app to upload “bolt bin” orders using the scanner or an optical camera. This allows customers to have their refill orders taken care of more efficiently and competitively.

Moving forward
Congratulations to all our innovating winners, as well as to other great ideas that didn’t make it into the winner’s circle this year or last. Now it’s time to get ready for the 2013 Maintenance & Reliability Innovator Award Program. It launches with the June issue of Maintenance Technology. Stay tuned for details. MT

Ken Bannister is author of Lubrication for Industry and the Lubrication section of the 28th edition Machinery’s Handbook. He’s also a Contributing Editor for Lubrication Management & Technology.Email:



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