SCAMPER: Everything can happen with the right questions

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

THERE’S an elderly woman at an airline ticket counter: “No window seat, please. I don’t want my new hairdo messed up.” I remembered this sometime last week when I did an informal survey of corporate managers who claimed they knew much about innovation.

No, the managers didn’t impress me. Except for one or two, they had no idea what was the latest innovative product or service that had been accepted by their bosses or customers in the past year. Maybe they did not want to talk about it. Why not? If you’re sure about yourself, then why hide it?

Some of them claim their innovation process is confidential. Excuse me, I’m not asking about the “process.” I’m only interested in the real, out-of-this-world product or service that contributed to their corporate profitability. In the first place, I should be the one suggesting to you the approaches, processes, and strategies that you can use to create new products. And I can even give it to you for free, if you want it that way.

Looking at the issue – they said they have enough examples but can’t prove it. This is a natural habit of dishonest people. Since their nose is sticking out like Pinocchio, I have no recourse but to keep my protest in silence — the moment they say X, their body language is manifesting Y. Now, how can you respect these people?

The fact that a why-not idea has actually been tried and tested someplace also helps shift the conversation to a higher level. That’s what I did to Peter, a 45-year-old expert on lean production in a major industry. I asked him: “What was your latest low-cost idea that solved a pestering management problem?” They key phrase there is “low-cost idea.” Other than that, whatever you say will not be counted as an intelligent answer.

“Is there such a thing?” asked Peter. Of course, there are hundreds of examples out there. In fact, I’m using them to spice up my popular workshops on “Kaizen Blitz.” On top of my list is Japan’s cubic water melon, which was created using wood scraps, and the country’s Bibingkinitan™ and Kambal Pandesal™, which were developed without a sizeable investment as I would have imagined.

Like those examples, how big is the opportunity for us to create innovative products and services out there? I should say “the sky is the limit” if you will consider doing a lot of serious research, punctuated by the SCAMPER approach, and trial-and-error implementation with the active help of employees.

The SCAMPER technique uses a set of questions to help would-be innovators improve an existing product or service and make it better than before. But more than the questions, SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to other uses or purposes, Eliminate, and Rearrange.

Using “substitute,” as the first letter of SCAMPER, what are the possible questions that you would like to ask? The obvious ones are as follows: What material of an existing product can you substitute to make an improvement without sacrificing its quality, cost, and delivery to customers? What if I swap A with B and see what happens? How can I substitute the place of production, allow flextime for the workers, experiment with new materials, or hire college dropouts to do the job of graduate people?

What if we give priority to women or those with physical ability to do the job of factory operators? The list can be endless. The more questions, the better, like what people do when brainstorming or brainwriting. To do just that, there should be no criticism of ideas until everyone is ready to eliminate duplications.

To work on SCAMPER, you can download the form at

I’m particularly interested in how high-flying people and dynamic organizations create new things to improve quality and productivity. Thinking this way is also an excellent tool to get you to be a bit bolder and more outrageous than you may think. In fact, as I’ve proven time and again, many of these solutions are inexpensive. In that way, non-managerial workers can readily impress their bosses and win instant approval.

The trouble is that many of these managers are not quite impressed about actively soliciting the ideas of their workers. One manager had even the gall to say – “They’re undergraduates, holding only contractual jobs, and so what you can you expect out of them?”

Really, management is a complicated issue when you have people managers who don’t understand the real meaning of industrial democracy.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing on human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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  1. Innovations you say, here are some…skyscrppers are now made of glass, invention for glass that repels dirt/oils/dust/etc is a big money maker, or even a self cleaning glass. Why not come up with cloth detergent that needs no water for rinsing and the upside you will produce the washing machine that needs no water (two birds in one shot) for sure you have the entire world for your need more..I am preparing a wait.

  2. You hit the nail on the head, they are incompetent. It is in every single thing. Try getting anything sorted in the philippines & its a nightmare. It is everyone you deal with. They are either lazy, cant be bothered, dont know, couldnt care less or any other reason.
    You want to see incompetence going on right this instant, look at this number plate fiasco. These people have made it compulsory for every driver to have a new number plate. Why, then when they give you that answer look inot it more deeply. It has security measures. Thats one of the things they will say & just today we have been told no they dont have any of the security measures they said. Now there are millions of number plates to be issued to every single driver & everyone has to pay in advance 7 its 450 for the plat & 50 for the sticker so its P500 in total for something that nobody needs or wants. These people are idiots & they are in everything everywhere in the philippines.
    The country is a laughing stock to foreigners who see these simple problems that the philippines has every single day of the week. Fools & idiots & incompetents in charge of everything.