Creative Thinking: The Not-So-Secret Weapon

At MilliporeSigma, we have fostered a culture of problem solving. I was fortunate to work with our CEO, Udit Batra, to help develop the problem-solving model for our organization. What I find so interesting about the process and the concept is that, at the end of the day, it’s all very simple. We use a simple model to address very complex and tough challenges that not only our organization and our 1 million customers face, but also brilliant scientists and researchers.

Yet even more striking is that in our industry, creative thinking can live on an island that is very rarely visited. Scientists are dyed-in-the-wool analysts—if you don’t have data to back it up, then why bother? I was born and raised in Missouri, where our state nickname is the “Show Me State.” To me, that nickname plays out in a variety of ways, but the “show me” mentality is made more powerful when you use data to make your sustainability story stronger in creative and unique ways that haven’t been done before.

If you read my previous post, you’re familiar with my allergy to data. With that allergy now behind me, let me tell you about our DOZN tool and its origins—which really demonstrate the power of a creative idea infused with data to come up with a solution to address something that our industry struggles with: quantifying greenness of products in the life science and chemicals market.

I remember reading a fascinating story about how Nike was driving sustainability thinking and design principles into its products. This story covered the design process and how Nike challenged its designers to reduce the environmental footprint of their products. Armed with data, they challenged themselves to reduce the footprint without sacrificing performance. I remember sitting there and thinking that this wasn’t a breakthrough idea, but it was done in a creative way. I then thought, “Why in the world can’t we do that?”

So I went back to our team of experts and shared my thoughts. While lifecycle analysis is a great approach, it’s often expensive and takes quite a bit of time. So, how do we modify the approach so that we have something that is a realistic alternative? After explaining my concept, goal and the big ideas of what we could do with something like this to my team, I first got those looks of “Here he goes again with some far-flung idea.” But then, the idea started to connect in different ways with each team member, and we all became curious about the possibility—the vision of what this could be.

That was the summer of 2011, which seems like ages ago. For several years, our team worked through iteration after iteration. At the start, we didn’t have our problem statement completely hammered out but we had enough to start down the path. We also meshed thinking outside of the box—in a way that no one had yet done in our industry—with a grounded data-centric approach. We used established and industry-accepted frameworks—like the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry by Paul Anastas and John Warner—to guide our thinking. We were flexible and reiterated as needed, yet remained mindful of what our end goal was. As Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”

In total, we’ve had four summers’ worth of interns work on the project, along with our Green Chemistry Fellow and our partners at Ramboll/Environ, who helped us validate our methodology to make sure that we were not only scientifically accurate, but also using data and information to meet the objective of quantifying the greenness of products.

We feel like we’re still just at the start of this process. Our first scientific paper on DOZN was just recently published in ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. We’re also currently working to take DOZN and turn it from a product tool to a process tool—helping to solve even bigger problems for our customers. And to up the ante on engagement, we’re working on making DOZN a publicly available tool for our customers so that they can help us build an even stronger tool that can be practically applied and used by scientists and researchers around the world.

It’s not that it was a transformational idea. We took a simple idea with complex inner-workings, and then creatively figured out how this could be an analytical tool. This is just one of the many examples of breakthrough problem-solving at our organization. Which leads me to ask—where can you be creative in an unexpected way today?

Jeffrey Whitford is head of global corporate responsibility for MilliporeSigma.

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