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The Bike Shop: Engaging the Innovator

Innovation, rapid product development, rapid reaction, prototyping, rapid transition to production. Sound familiar? These, and many other semantically similar phrases, have become the ubiquitous clichés of developmental industries. This article is about innovation and innovators; it is also about customers, problem solving and growing the business.

Raytheon Missile Systems' Bike Shop is often asked what the formula is for innovation. Our answer is simple: "You are asking for a roadmap to a place where nobody has been before; it doesn't exist." We describe ourselves as a rapid product development and experimentation lab. Fundamentally, we are problem solvers. Problems come in myriad forms but generally share some basic characteristics: A customer is willing to pay to satisfy a need. The customer has a pre-conceived notion of what the solution looks like. The first is the genesis of business. The second is the first mistake in the process. The Bike Shop's motto is "Envision – Create – Accomplish." This consistently proves to be an effective program plan for innovation.

The first task of an innovative solution provider is to understand the problem — the real problem. Too often engineers make their first mistake on a project by trying to understand the solution or accepting the proffered problem statement at face value. The Bike Shop starts all projects with a brainstorming session.

Here is an opportunity for an early mistake. Assuming you don't need a theoretical physicist and a machinist at your brainstorming session is a sure sign that you have pre-supposed the expertise required to achieve an optimum solution. Envision the problem. Put the problem into your own team's terms and understand it from the ultimate user's perspective.

If a customer comes in and says "I need a bridge," don't start ordering steel and searching for a civil engineer. Find out what problem he or she is trying to solve. The real answer may not be "I need a bridge." The problem may be something like, "My house is on this side of the river and my fields are on the other side." There are a lot of solutions to that problem. Build a new house, reroute the river, plant new fields, sell everything and move to a new location. In the end, you might not build a bridge.

The Box
Think of industry as three nested boxes, business inside physics inside imagination. We can imagine all kinds of things we can't build. We can build all kinds of things that the business is not set up to handle. The business box is the safe box, the box where there is a process, procedure or precedent to cover an action or concept. It is also the box that supplies paychecks, benefits, capital, facilities, resources and retirement. Paradoxically, we want everyone to operate outside the box while simultaneously telling them on a daily basis that they must follow the rules. Company policies define the business box. If you start the process of innovation inside the business box you will fail, by definition. As Albert Einstein once stated, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Attempting to accomplish outside of the business box is tricky. If it is done right, the boundaries of the business box expand and you grow into new markets, opportunities and technologies. If it is done poorly, problems can be created for both the company and the innovator.

Innovation starts in the imagination box. There is a ping-pong table in the Bike Shop. Real innovation has occurred with four engineers playing doubles and saying things like, "What if we..." or "Have you ever seen a..." and a favorite, "Here's a ridiculous idea..." Brainstorming teams need to be comfortable with each other and willing to engage in open imagination without ego or prejudice. Remember: It's OK to pay people to think, not just work. Part of envisioning is mentally mapping out how to navigate through the boxes. A real challenge for the Innovator is to understand that every project or product must end up "inside the box."

Once a workable solution to a problem is envisioned, the smallest possible team should be assembled to execute the effort. Choosing the right team members and team lead is critical to success. The leader for a project should be chosen based on his or her passion for the particular challenge. A good leader is a good leader — but a passionate leader inspires success and will accept nothing less.

A serious pitfall is waiting at the start of the creation process — the plan. Funding, manpower and schedule: all are rolled up into a program plan intended to accomplish something that hasn't been done yet. Too-rigid plans are a common mistake. A good plan for the creation of an innovative solution accepts that there are many unknowns that will need to be sorted out quickly along the way. Plans should be flexible enough to accommodate these changes.

Do your homework. Raytheon has produced extremely satisfied customers, in short order, by understanding their problem, doing the research, and proposing that the customer go to another company to buy an off-the-shelf 85 percent solution. Little business is generated for us on those cases, but it fosters relationships with customers who subsequently bring us a lot of business, because they trust the Bike Shop as an honest broker for their interests.

The final required piece of the creation part of our process is a dedicated group of artisans who not only have a high level of skill in their craft, but also the confidence and communication skills necessary to be a significant contributor to the creative process.

What a particular project accomplishes is clearly a product of the intent and scope of the work. The Bike Shop delivers two primary products: special testing setups and services for existing programs, and prototype systems (see figure above). The panacea of prototype systems is the new product that goes into production and feeds the product lines. Here again is a pitfall to be understood. If one in 10 or 20 prototypes ends up as a product, when is the right time and what is the right amount of effort to put into documentation and configuration management? The Bike Shop has learned, by trial and error, a few general guidelines to help answer that question. We identify two distinct but related versions of the prototype: the traditional prototype, and the quality prototype. Virtually every project starts out building the traditional prototype through design, vendor-part identification, and understanding existing hardware. As the prototype evolves, and customers' and Raytheon's awareness of it develops, an unquantifiable sense of applicability and relevance takes root and the potential for more than a one-off product is realized. As soon as this starts to take place, controls can begin to be wrapped around the contributing elements of the system to start the process of vetting the sources and configuring the subsystems and components. One exception to this rule is software. The schedule and cost impact of software configuration control is relatively trivial to implement from the start, and it is invariably worth the effort.

Bike Shop Prototype Example
The HYDRA (Hybrid Defense Reconnaissance and Assault) vehicle is an excellent illustration of an innovative prototype. This is a technology concept demonstrator intended to address next-generation military vehicle needs for Future Combat System as well as CV-22-borne operations. Of all of the critical performance requirements identified through discussions with end users, four of them drove the innovation of the design.

  • The vehicle had to fit in a CV-22, but be a good off-road performer.
  • The vehicle had to have a small turning radius (10-foot goal).
  • The vehicle had to be virtually silent from a short distance away in a ready-to-drive state.
  • Preference was to be given to hybrid or other green technology.
The Bike Shop brainstormed dozens of thoughts during four days, started with masking tape on the floor and cafeteria chairs, and progressed to delivery of a sketch concept for a series hybrid–diesel electric drive system with individual wheel-mounted hub motors and active air suspension. The design addressed these key requirements in the following way:
  • The active air suspension allows the vehicle to vertically collapse the ground clearance of an off-road vehicle to fit on a CV-22.
  • Because each wheel is driven separately, wheels on one side can be driven in the opposite direction from the wheels on the other achieving what is known on tracked vehicles as neutral steer, resulting in an effective zero-foot turning radius.
  • With the vehicle in stealth mode (diesel engine shut down, battery bank engaged) the system makes no sound, but can burn out all four wheels at a touch of the throttle.
  • It is a true series hybrid drive system that runs on bio-diesel
The HYDRA system continues to be developed and refined based on the interests of our customers.

Innovation and prototyping is a necessary and fascinating part of our industry. It is the job of the innovator to be both creative and industrious, but also to understand how those efforts benefit the customer and the company. When the warfighter calls, it is time to envision, create and accomplish.

Conan Davis