Taking a Lean Approach to Innovation

Taking a Lean Approach to Innovation

By Dan Armbrust, president and CEO, SEMATECH

Ever since the discovery of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s, our industry has experienced turbulent periods of technological and economic change. Although these periods of transition pose threats, they also open the door for tremendous opportunities.

In order to change course and effectively deal with the inevitable uncertainty and risk that comes during these times of change, developing growth strategies that are based upon innovation must be our top priority. Traditional problem-solving methods that worked in the past will likely fall short as we attempt to simultaneously sustain Moore’s law and accomplish at least a 10X reduction in power consumption and cost for an emerging era — or perhaps more aptly stated, inevitable era — of pervasive computing driven by the Internet of Everything.

To succeed, we need to rethink our innovative approaches and challenge ourselves to look beyond our established business processes and models. This includes both internal strategies for nurturing innovation within each of our own companies, as well as external collaborative-based approaches that provides infrastructure and builds common ground. True innovation is less driven by a few isolated visionaries; instead it is the outcome of teams empowered to conceive and develop entirely new products and approaches.

The concept of creative innovation is not new and recently has been gaining more and more visibility and attention within the semiconductor community. For example, during SEMI’s International Technology Partners Conference (ITPC) this past November, G. Dan Hutcheson, CEO of VLSI Research Inc., presented a talk on the principles of innovation, including lessons from four top CTOs. In his presentation, Hutcheson points out the innovation challenges that our industry is very well acquainted with — 3D chip stacking, 450 mm, new transistor architectures, multi-patterning, EUV — and compared the classic innovation model to new innovation models. His end message is a powerful one: innovation is the responsibility of the many, not the few.

Key themes at this year’s Industry Strategy Symposium (ISS) also focused on the challenges of building enduring initiatives that nurture new ideas in an environment where our industry is no longer the preferred destination for college graduates. Adobe Chief Strategist and VP of Creativity Mark Randall demonstrated how Adobe inspires corporate imagination and encourages its employees to innovate by enabling entrepreneurship. His examples (presentation) showed a compelling and unique way to move from talk to action.

When traditional business models, tactics and metrics aren’t working in an environment of extreme uncertainty, it’s time to focus on developing innovative methods that minimize wasted time and effort, as proposed by tech entrepreneur Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. The take-away message: dedicate resources to small‐scale, focused innovation initiatives with rapid customer-validated feedback loops. And if you are wondering if these principles can be applied to an established operation, they can. You don’t have to be startup company to employ startup thinking. At SEMATECH, we continue to implement our own lean principles so we can properly align to the current reality of our industry.

Formally and informally, a growing number of companies are already developing their own set of lean principles and stepping up to create an environment where employees are encouraged to think outside the box and to act on innovative ideas. In the end, the real art to thinking outside the box is crafting, designing and building the next box. This means unleashing our creativity and encouraging innovation that extends across all of the segments of our supply chain inspired by the genuine needs of the consumer.

I take inspiration from Robert Noyce who said, “Optimism is the essential ingredient of innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over staying in safe places?”

He’s right. We don’t have a choice. To borrow another famous motivational phrase — just do it!

Dan Armbrust is president and CEO of SEMATECH. As a member-driven global consortium, SEMATECH’s role is to align roadmaps, R&D and financial investments on behalf of our members, partners and the industry. With a focus on both early development and manufacturability, we drive technical consensus, pull research into the industry mainstream, and lead major programs to address critical industry transitions.

February 4, 2014