02/07/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Don't Ground Innovation Along With Dreamliner

Innovation has been a popular business buzzword in recent years, and for good reason: It's critical to remaining competitive.

The US has been losing its innovative and competitive edge in some critical areas, according to a 2012 report from the US Department of Commerce and the National Economic Council, which advocates for more investment in research, education, infrastructure and manufacturing, finally recognized by many as a key driver of innovation.

That said, there's also been a fair amount of hype around the I-word. It drives me crazy when I see folks pursue innovation for the sake of innovation (and not real value) or boldly declare their own products innovative. Sometimes, I truly believe, many companies would be better served by improving current operations rather than trying to be innovative. (The recently privatized Dell, for example, strikes me as one of those companies.)

Which brings me to Boeing and its troubled 787 Dreamliner. Marketed as a symbol of US innovation, the aircraft now has folks pondering the state of US innovation after the plane was grounded for an in-depth investigation following two thermal runaway incidents with its lithium-ion batteries, on top of a variety of other problems that resulted in delays. The Economist, for example, asked: Did Boeing take "innovation too far?"

I believe Boeing deserves credit for doing what many books on innovation, such as "The Innovator's Dilemma," advise: Pushing to solve real problems and blowing past the incrementalism that often bogs down and kills mature companies. In the Dreamliner, Boeing has produced a lightweight, fuel-efficient plane that is comfortable in many truly creative ways for fliers. It delivers on innovative materials, flying systems, manufacturing processes and even supply logistics. It seems unfair, too knee-jerk, to now abuse all of those creative moves as part of what has gone wrong with the Dreamliner's batteries. Because the Wall Street Journal got it right: "Innovation is a Messy Business."

If we want to value innovation, we should pat Boeing's back for its efforts, laud officials for trying to identify the problem in a way that is safe for consumers (with the plane on the ground) and give Boeing engineers the time they need to get the plane back in the air.

I mention the engineers because, in the end, the Dreaminer's problems may not have anything to do with innovation at all. Aerospace industry expert Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group (Fairfax, VA), said in his recent newsletter the "terrifying state of affairs for the Dreamliner" is the result of engineers being "nudged aside by the bean counters." He added that Boeing's "strategy of downplaying engineering is starting to have a deleterious effect on the company's financial performance."

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