The mistakes that led to my first innovation.

Photo credit: Anton Chiang

With the back of his hand, my despondent manager swept aside the cigar ash from his desk, looked at me through the smoke-filled office and retorted ‘Bloody hell Chris, not again!’

Two weeks after my dad had pulled me out of college because of my lack of interest in academic study, I found myself in a new suit, sat in front of a mainframe computer dumb terminal, punching in numbers from the large piles of requisition notes that were regularly plonked on my desk by the stores manager.

I often look back on this period and think it was a miracle that I found this job, for it set me on a path that led me to where I am now. I am grateful to my dad for this.

It was also a miracle that my first manager kept me on after the mistakes I made. I am grateful to him too, although I think he made the right choice.

And here’s why…

I worked in a busy office with two men who managed all the procurement activities for the council. Their many visitors – sales reps, tradesmen, accountants, foremen, council officials and administrators – were a welcome distraction from the dreadful monotony of my job. I was intrigued by their business conversations, negotiations and friendly banter. It was all very new for me, a young man still not out of his teens.

By the time each of those requisition notes came to my attention, they had been on quite a journey, and deserved more of my attention than I normally gave them.

After someone from the housing department had visited a property to assess the work to be done, he would input the details into a computer terminal that was connected to the same mainframe that served all the council departments. Each morning, someone from our works department would print out a batch of jobs, sort them by trade and send them to the foremen. The foremen would amend or add materials to the requisition. The tradesmen would then collect the requisition notes each morning, sometimes amend them, and take them round to the stores. The storemen would issue the materials, but if they were not in stock, would also amend the requisition note, changing either the quantities or catalogue numbers. So when the requisition note arrived on my desk, it would often contain several handwritten amendments. To add to the problem, it was often stained with oil, paint or dirt.

These requisition notes showed what had been taken by the hundreds of tradesmen who descended on the Aladdin’s cave of goodies stored in the depot buildings below our office. Everything needed to build, repair or maintain council houses, vehicles, roads, public buildings, bus shelters, offices, parks, drains, town halls, public toilets and museums were held in the well-organized yard and its store houses.

This was all checked during a formal stock-taking process that took place a few times each year. Trying to solve problems during this late stage of the process was almost impossible and normally required stock-adjustments together with difficult questions to answer.

To avoid these discrepancies, we would check the hash totals at the end of every day, by recording a running total of the quantities of every requisition note – using Roman numerals, pencil and paper – and comparing it to the computer-generated hash totals that were based on the data input by me. If they did not match, it meant there was a clerical error. And often, there was a clerical error, which meant frantically searching for the cause so that we could correct it and go home.

Luckily, I eventually got an opportunity to solve the hash total problem, forever.

One day, we were in a meeting with a business analyst, a programmer, an accountant and a couple of managers, trying to agree improvements to our computer system. Essentially we were going to keep everything as it was, but modernize some of the functionality. Then I made a suggestion. The conversation went something like this:

‘Could we install a printer in the stores and connect it to the mainframe computer?’

‘Yes’ said the programmer.

‘And could it print directly from the data we input to the computer, in real-time?’

Again, he replied ‘Yes.’

‘And if the foreman enters a job number into the computer, could it pull up the estimate from the housing department on to the screen and allow him to amend the details?’

‘Yes, we could do that too!’

‘Then what if the foreman could either amend an existing requisition or create a brand new one and send it to the stores where it would be automatically printed? Would that be possible?’

‘Yes that sounds possible.’ said the computer manager.

The excitement levels started to rise, and then I asked another question.

‘And what if the computer could check the stock levels for each item on the requisition note, before it is sent to the stores, would this be possible?’

The business analyst smiled and confirmed this would also be possible.

‘And what if the storemen had a computer, and could pull up each requisition on a screen to confirm that the parts had been issued, would this be possible?’

‘Yes was the answer.

‘Then we would no longer need my old job, no more problems with the hash totals!’

‘Brilliant,’ was the response from the accountant.

‘Yes’ said my manager, ‘It means teaching the foremen and storemen to use computers for the first time, but this could work.’

My manager said to me afterwards, ‘you should speak up more often in meetings, that was a great idea.’

This idea became my first project.

And it was wonderful to see the implementation take on a life of its own. One day, I wandered down to see how things were going. One of the foremen, probably in his late 50s, with large hands that reflected a life working on the building sites, was sat at his terminal setting up the requisition notes for the next day. He used the computer to input the materials needed for the next day. Sometimes he sent them directly to the stores, sometimes he saved them so that he could finalise the details with his tradesmen the next morning. He smiled at me and looked very contented with his new role. It was lovely to see.

Then I popped round to the stores. A transistor radio was playing all the latest hits. Duran Duran, UB40, Bananarama. The one storeman was singing along to Status Quo, ‘Oh, oh you’re in the army, now‘ while getting materials ready to reduce the morning queues. He was also happy.

In fact, it seemed everyone loved this simple innovation, and it was touching to see so many people with manual working backgrounds whole-heartedly embracing this new technology.

So what did this teach me about innovation? Here are some takeaways from my story:

  1. An innovative idea might come from the person who suffers the most with the current way of working.
  2. A quiet or a new person who does not speak up in a meeting might be the person with the idea you are looking for.
  3. The what if type questions mentioned above led to a paradigm shift, where computers were no longer just for office workers in suits.
  4. An early test of an idea could be the level of excitement generated when it is first proposed.
  5. If a person from the impacted area is involved in generating the idea, then this could make it more credible, practical and fit for purpose.
  6. Finally, be patient with a person who makes mistakes, he or she may reward your loyalty in unexpected ways.

Thank you for reading.

I would really appreciate any feedback from you.

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