New products lift us up and we must show a constant bias towards innovation, says Steve Napieralski, president at Oz Lifting.
You’ll hear it said a lot at my company, “I’m just thinking aloud here…”. And I like to see it.
Innovation is a cornerstone of growth, but a business can’t continue to innovate unless it is culturally committed to do so from top to bottom.
That means that every member of each department must be challenged and encouraged to look for continued improved, from best practices to product and everything in between. Suppliers and channel partners must be on board too. When anyone starts to believe that a company, especially a provider of industrial equipment, like cranes and hoists, is done with innovating, they start to die. I’m serious.
Guess what the most innovative businesses that have enhanced and improved every department and product need to do next: innovate.
You have two ears and one mouth, remember – listen.
The companies I know that are the most successful innovators have certain things in common. First, they’re led by individuals that listen. Beware the CEO that talks more than he or she listens. In simple terms, you can say that the best leaders have an open-door policy. Without that door being open, all the great thoughts being generated from a supply chain never get to a point where they’re acted upon.
These leaders are always grateful for ideas about how their products, no matter how popular, can be improved. They want to know how a process can be made smoother, a technology smarter, and a tool more efficient.
If a person knocks on their boss’s door only to be told to go away or an idea isn’t even considered because they’re too lowly in status for their opinion to count, their next great idea is never shared. Worse, they tell someone at another company and it becomes their idea to profit from.
Even if someone is only 10% of the way to having a solution to a problem or has 20% of a concept that could add safety and/or efficiency to the point of use, that’s a start. It’s something to build on. It might be that another worker has 30% of their own to add and another one 5%. It’s then a case of putting them together and doing the math[s]. A good leader knows that and is well practiced at putting the pieces together.
Two types of innovation
I agree with most thought leaders on this subject, that the innovative process can usually be put into one of two categories: continuous product improvement and completely new concepts.
Companies, like mine, that provide product that is supplied through channel partners or a distribution network, will likely find that continuous product improvement is mainly driven from within the walls of the company, while completely new innovations will come back up through the supply chain from the point of use. That isn’t always the case, but it often is.
Given that an in-house team sees product at various stages of manufacture and assembly, they often think of ways to innovate that don’t necessarily lead to a vastly different look, feel, or function when the item is used. It maybe that a great innovation creates a faster, leaner, or safer manufacturing process that results in smoother production lines or reduces the need to stock certain parts.
I’ve seen it before where a product is improved but neither the distributor nor user know it’s happened. I get just as excited about innovations that you can’t even see as I do ones that result in something that’s obvious from the moment it’s taken out of the box. It’s all incredible innovation.
A cyclist wouldn’t know if their new bike has inner tubes that are impossible to puncture, but they’ll know when they overtake a competitor using an older model who’s out of the race with a blow-out. A cell phone user can’t see the battery that gives them longer use. The driver of a new automobile doesn’t know it rolled off the production line a week faster than the last one he or she bought. But it’s all impressive innovation that started with someone’s bright idea.
It’s why I like working with people that never assume things are perfect and never think that something can’t be done. If it later turns out that something is as good as it can get based on present technology, or improving it one way is impractical, that’s OK – at least we tried.
The goal is never to innovate for innovation’s sake, of course.
The best channel partners we work with challenge us constantly.
They ask, “Have you got this product in a higher capacity?” and, “It’s cool, but it’s a bit heavy for this application – can it be lighter?”
That open door policy counts here too. If a dealer calls with ideas that never get acted upon, or they’re told to go away and worry about their own systems and processes, they’ll likely stop calling. Where that worker we referenced earlier went away with an idea, a distributor might too.
As an aside, you’ve got to be nimble when it comes to a dealer network. Our partners we know through the Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF) are often rigging professionals that need to deliver solutions to crane applications, while those we meet at the Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition & Conference (WEFTEC) might provide semisubmersible pumps and railings for wastewater plants. Their needs are very different and the ways that they challenge us to innovate are varied too.
A product’s journey
Whether it’s continuous product improvement or completely new innovations, they can only be brought to fruition with a step-by-step approach. These steps will be slightly different but let’s look at the route we take when an idea for a new product is tabled. If this article gets your creative juices flowing, you might use these steps as a template for your next innovation.
Once the central theme gets put on the whiteboard, it’s time to sit down with our sales, engineering, and marketing teams. It’s important that they’re all there.
Typically, an engineer will drive the conversation, looking at what the product must have and what it’d be cool if it could do. This is where a wish-list is drawn up and it’s likely that many items will eventually be ruled out because of logistics and viability. That piece of paper is then taken away by each of the teams to work on their part of the project before we sit down together again, usually in two to three weeks. It will be clear at that point if it’s worth proceeding with a prototype or not.
I recommend making two prototypes, unless a product is especially large. We will rigorously test both, taking one to the point of destruction. That’s important because it tells us what the limitations are and it’s a story to tell a prospective buyer. In other words, if it works way beyond what will eventually be the marked safe working load, there’s peace of mind that it’ll meet requirements placed upon it in the field. We involve select dealers in this process too. After all, they’re the ones that are going to be responsible for putting it into action. They might notice something that needs tweaking or removing.
Not all prototypes become products. Oftentimes they are scrapped and other times they’re changed, and more prototypes created. This process goes through as many cycles as it needs, so we can skip to the part where it enters production.
It’s never easy to decide how many to manufacture but it’s a good idea to be led by the utilisation of materials. For example, if we decide we want around 30 units, but we can make 35 out of a single sheet of metal, we’ll make 35. After that, it’s a case of responding to demand and hoping there’s quickly a requirement to make another 35 and another 35.
Interestingly, over time, there’ll be a need to continuously improve what started as an innovation.