Innovation means thinking ‘inside the box’ too
24 February, 2012
Jim Sullivan, chief executive of Sullivision, looks at what goes on in and around those famous boxes we all work in - and where we need to focus our creative thinking
“Innovation most of the time is simply taking A, B, C, and D, which already exist, and putting them together in a form called E”
Wolfgang Schmitt, chair, Rubbermaid Corp.
I distinctly recall a manager meeting I attended many years ago as a GM. We had a guest speaker who repeatedly stressed the importance of “thinking outside the box”. But other than citing 3M's Post-It product, he was unable to provide any specific insight on how to jumpstart this process, only that innovation “was key”.
After the speaker left, our area director and meeting leader, James Coughran, addressed the group. He looked towards the door where the speaker had exited. “The problem with thinking ‘outside the box’,” he sighed, “is that when we go back to work the first thing we do is crawl back inside the box. That’s where we need innovation and creative thinking.”
One of my fellow managers, infused with innovation fever, shouted out: “Hey, why do we even need a ‘box’?" He grinned and looked about for support at his clever remark. James, not one to be swayed off topic, deadpanned this response: “Because you work in one.”
While that kind of put a damper on "out of the box" ideation for the afternoon, James had made a bigger point: innovation is just as critical for the day-to-day reality as it is for the future one. He asked us to spend the rest of the session identifying current processes and systems, breaking them down, assessing why they worked, or did not, and what would make them work better.
He said to remember two things: innovation is not limited to product lines, and the little things mean as much as the big things. A journeyman’s approach to innovation perhaps, but the end result was fruitful: we collectively clarified our real problems and creatively defined new solutions to our daily challenges. It was a memorable meeting and it taught me a critical life lesson about this business: innovation at the unit level is essential to a company’s growth and success.
Form follows function, and innovation has solved many institutionalised problems over the past 20 years. While some of the problems were big—how do we streamline and improve kitchen efficiency? How do we sell more soft drinks? How do we transform "coffee-to-go" to align with customers' mobile lifestyles? How do we minimize labour in QSR without affecting customer service? How do we improve speed in the transaction process?—the innovative solutions were often small.
Kitchen display systems, self-ordering kiosks and electronic reader boards were big innovations, but the little ones solve big problems, too. Consider the flat, flimsy, thin lids with the rip-away tab that were once used to cover most every cup of takeaway coffee. Now think of the domed coffee lid. Can you imagine Starbucks being able to sell upwards of three billion coffees to go every year without that top? Remember when those wide-diameter straws began popping up 15 years ago (along with self-serve soft drink stations), allowing more cola-per-sip? Care to guess whether soft drink consumption in restaurants went up or down as a result? And what if you want to choose to either dip or squeeze your ketchup? Heinz has a packet “app” for that.
And that is not to say that vendors are the sole innovators in foodservice. The drive-through came about because a McDonald’s franchisee near a large American military base was frustrated by a US government rule which did not allow soldiers to wear their uniform inside a restaurant.
Spiralling labour costs in the 1980s prompted another fast food operator to place hand-lettered signs in his dining room which said: “Please Put Waste in Trashcan.” Voila! Obedient diners began bussing their own tables, saving staff costs in the dining room, and creating the “customer serf”. Two generations later, QSR and fast-casual diners have the bus-your-own behaviour hard-wired into their DNA. And let us not forget that independent operators continually develop innovative menu items which chains often adopt, adapt and scale.
So as we enter 2012, I would suggest one of the best things you can do to stay competitive and profitable is to first seek opportunities to innovate and problem-solve inside the box. Scott Bergren, chief executive of Pizza Hut USA concurs: “Do the hard stuff first: go back to the infrastructure of the brand.”
Assess your current systems, processes, and procedures. Ask yourself: why do we do it that way? Why can’t we do it better? Who does it better? What can we learn from them? (The impossible is often the untried.) Train customer-facing team members to share what customers ask for most that you don’t have. If you are planning customer focus groups, don’t ask “What do you want from us?” but rather, “What are you trying to do?” Save time? Save money? Seek value? Escape the epidemic of sameness? Then build menus or amend systems to help them achieve their foodservice goals as diners.
In addition to innovation, incrementalism is another key to success in 2012. Each week, solve one process or people problem, then another the next week, and then another. (It never costs more to fix a problem than it does not to fix it.) Do not look up in 2013 to find yourself 52 problems behind.
As my regional manager said when he concluded that meeting on thinking inside the box: “Bottom line, you’ll be remembered in this business for only one of two things: either the problems you solve or the ones you create.”
You can follow Jim Sullivan on Twitter @Sullivision and get his free leadership enewsletter at Sullivision.com. His new book Fundamentals: 9 Ways to Be Brilliant at the New Basics is available through Peach Report, email email@example.com for details.