Oct. 8, 2010

SRI methodology focuses Lab innovation effort

Laboratory teams are applying the concepts of the SRI International innovation program and the process is paying off.

According to SRI, innovation is the creation and delivery of new customer value in the marketplace. It's not just a gadget or new invention by a sole owner, but rather requires teamwork to determine the customer and market needs and establishment of a value proposition; identification of innovation champions and teams; and alignment of the entire organization to deliver the highest customer value.

The SRI approach is a consistent methodology for moving forward with a proposition that will succeed.

"It provides a common language for us and a way to hone our business practices so that we can take new ideas out to the marketplace and be realistic about how they can succeed," said Tomas Diaz de la Rubia, deputy director of Science and Technology. "For us, the marketplace means many things - it means NNSA, other DOE sponsors such as the Office of Science, it means DoD and other government agencies, industry and others. But in all cases, we need to look where we bring value to the customer and how we stand with the competition so that we can grow the Lab in the future."

So far, two groups of about 60 people (scientists, engineers and technical management), mainly from the S&T directorates and Global Security, have attended two-day sessions in Mountain View. One group, largely from Global Security, attended a one-day session at LLNL.

"They took what they learned in terms of methodology and approach and just started applying it," said Jenn Sweeney, an organization development consultant in Strategic Human Resources Management. "That tells me it's a fit. They (the trainees) are naturally using it and liking it."

The process has been applied to a number of projects. One is high-performance computing and simulation for the energy sector - to speed development times.

"Our idea is to spark a fire here," said Rob Sharpe, deputy associate director for S&T in Engineering. "I found it to be truly outstanding. It helps not only with the way you think, but with articulating a balanced approach to developing and delivering value to our customers. This effort represents a way for the Laboratory to accelerate the movement toward being a broader national security resource."

For Computation Associate Director Dona Crawford, the SRI method is an approach to really look at customer needs.

 "It helps us focus on the customer and the value we potentially bring to that customer," Crawford said. "It also helps us think through the costs of our approach and why it might be worth that cost. Finally, it helps us understand the alternatives, which sharpen our justification for why we're doing what we're doing and how we're doing it."

The program focuses on four principles to success in innovation: need, approach, benefits, and competition.

  • What is the important, quantitative, customer and market need?
  • What is the specific, quantitative approach to satisfying that need?
  • What are the quantitative benefits per costs from that approach?
  • Who is the competition and what are the alternatives now and in the future and why are your benefits per costs superior?

Jim Trebes, division leader of the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate's Physics Division, uses the concepts because he realizes that competition in the marketplace is getting steeper by the day.

"I strongly believe in the process and strongly believe LLNL needs to use the SRI approach," he said. "The level of competition keeps rising and we have to continually rise to ever-better levels of performance to succeed."

And a realistic approach to a technology or program is a notion Trebes gets behind.

''It enables someone to focus on what is really important in the proposed project," he said. "It also provides very prompt feedback on what you really said and what your viewgraphs really showed as compared to what you think you said and what you think the viewgraphs show. Most importantly, it develops a strong focus on the real sponsor/customer needs."

Crawford, Trebes and Sharpe are working to instill the SRI method within their respective organizations.

"Those of us in Computation that went to the SRI workshop, came back and 'taught' a couple of the modules to my senior management group...everyone in attendance had the opportunity to put the basics to practice in real time...since then, people in Comp pretty much know if they want to present the results of a project or propose a new idea they should be sure to do so in terms of needs, approach, benefits, competition."

As for Trebes, he said he's still working on getting his group to think in terms of the SRI approach. "I certainly keep emphasizing that I believe in the process, but we have not made the process part of our culture... I think you never stop trying."

Curt Carlson, president and CEO of SRI, who recently spoke at the Lab, summed it up: "If you think about your customers, you can always create value for them...To thrive in the exponential economy, our innovation processes must be exponential, too."