Sunday, February 17, 2013

Synergy of Innovation and Perfection: Towards the Ultimate Competitive Advantage

Apple is reportedly working on a smart watch, called as iWatch by the media.  Will this be a successful product? Probably yes, if one were to consider Apple’s string of successful products such as iPod, iPhone and iPad; need not necessarily be, if one were to take into account its occasional failures such as its early generation gaming devices and portable computers.  Apple’s recent successes have, in large measure, been due to its ability to design, manufacture and deliver an innovatively perfect product for the market. From the looks and objectives, iWatch seems to have the innovative specifications and the perfect form factor that are in keeping with Apple’s core competence of innovation coupled with perfection. Apple’s track record does suggest that the combination of innovation and perfection is a pathway to success.

A study of several successful firms suggests that introduction of new products or services on a systematic basis is a key factor of success, but only if such products and services are delivered with perfection, that is, without any faults or weaknesses, and in a completely correct and exact manner. The relative importance of innovation and perfection in the combination has, however, been a matter of subjectivity. Companies that sparkle with innovation but fail to deliver it with panache have been far less successful than companies which have been merely followers but delivered products and services of impeccable quality. It would, therefore, appear that companies need to not only ensure both innovation and perfection but also get the right balance of innovation and perfection that makes economic sense.
Innovation has no end. What appears to be an innovative product at the time of innovation or commercialization is soon rendered obsolete by a more innovative product or by a clone that is designed and manufactured more perfectly. Smart phones, for example, led a wave of innovation in mobile phones and convergence devices. The current experimental trend of iWatch and Google Glasses indicates that certain products, be they computers, smart phones or cameras, can be rendered obsolete by the trend of wearable or communicable computers that these smart watches and smart goggles signify. Companies which recognized the cycle of innovation and obsolescence, and have in addition made their own products obsolete by more innovative products have enjoyed consistent success. 
Innovation has no limits. What appears to be beyond the reach of a first innovation becomes a facile task for the subsequent innovations.  Having 256 MB RAM was once a design feat for computers. Today, a smart phone is designed with 2 GB RAM and quad-core processors. HD screen was unthinkable in a cellular phone not too long ago. HD screen capability of 1080p is now pass√© in contemporary mobile phones. iWatch with Bluetooth and wireless connectivity could lead to remote connectivity between the wearer and his or her devices easy. With development of needleless diagnostics, Apple may develop its iWatch into an iDoctor next. The more innovatively hardware and software are designed, and more importantly they are integrated, the more innovative a product would be.
Innovation has no boundaries. What appears to be a partial innovation in a component of a product can be a dominant driver of total product innovation. Samsung may be a follower in smart phones but its innovative edge in touch screens, ranging up to the latest large format Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) screens as well as bendable and extendable OLED screens has driven innovation in its smart phones. Ordinary components can be assembled into an extraordinary product through software innovation as Apple has demonstrated. As firms systematically specialize in innovation, they also acquire core competence in certain categories of innovation, as exemplified by Toyota in hybrid vehicles, Intel in computer chips, Qualcomm in mobile chips, Nintendo in gaming devices, BD in needles and so on. Continuous and systematic innovation leads to product specialization on one hand and erects entry barriers on the other.
Like innovation, perfection has no end. As nano measurement technologies emerge, tolerances can be defined more tightly, for example. Perfection, however, tends to be comparative and contextual. Perfection is measured against the specifications set by the designer. Companies committed to high quality go in for high specifications to set the design tone for perfection. Each successive generation of products sets higher standards for perfection. In an automobile engine, spark plugs, for example, have become 30 percent thinner while moving parts like pistons, connecting rods and crankshafts have seen reductions in weights ranging from 30 to 50 percent. Perfection in measurement technologies has enabled such improvements.
Unlike innovation, perfection has a limit, a limit that is Zero in defects of manufacture and another limit that is infinity in “meantime between failures (MTBF)” of a product in service.  These limits are not easy to achieve, though. They are dependent on the sophistication, consistency and reliability of the manufacturing equipment and the manufacturing process as well as the quality of materials of manufacture on the other.  Continuous improvements have led automobile component makers to specifying defects from defective parts per  thousand that was in vogue years ago to defective parts per million that is the standard more recently. Six Sigma is another approach that tightens the limits for process variability. The term Six Sigma originated from statistical modeling of manufacturing processes and denotes 99.99966% of the products manufactured are statistically expected to be free of defects (3.4 defects per million).

Like innovation, perfection has no boundaries. It is not confined to products and services or product and process technologies. It is equally related to people and processes. Quality and avoidance of defects needs to be a credo, right from construction of language to manufacture of products, and from understanding consumer needs to fulfilling them. This assumes great importance given that consumers are more demanding, regulators are more watchful and competition is unrelenting. Over the last few years, millions of cars have been recalled by marquee companies such as Toyota, BMW and a few others, indicating that not being perfect has a significant cost attached to it. Perfection does not necessarily mean getting things right first time. There are enough practices in the design and manufacturing processes such as simulation and piloting to ensure that all defect-prone systems, causes and interventions are identified and addressed.
If innovation drives the boundary of user experience, perfection establishes the quality of user experience. Innovation has onetime design costs while perfection has recurring manufacturing costs. The combination of innovation and perfection thus determines the lifecycle costs for the company and the lifecycle value for the company. Depending upon their strategies, individual companies choose that combination which best suits their business position and market standing. The synergy of innovation and perfection comes from a combination of technology and people, a competitive and proactive mindset being the underlying behavioral foundation. Without innovation, perfection has little space while without perfection, innovation can go awry. This is best illustrated by the story of the modern day spark plug (first engineered in 1860  with the engineering of the internal combustion engine) which demonstrates how innovation and perfection are synergistic.
Spark plug is the heart of the internal combustion engine which in turn is the core of the petrol-powered automobile.  Spark plugs have seen a leapfrog in sparking efficiency and maintainability over the last several decades due to a combination of the use of more advanced materials (innovation in materials sciences) and the deployment of tighter tolerances in each of the components, not limited to the electrodes (perfection in design and manufacture). Use of exotic iridium and platinum materials for central electrode and ground electrode respectively, and tight ultra-fine tapering and gap setting promote not only high efficiency sparking but also long life and more effective self-cleaning characteristics. The synergy of materials innovation and manufacturing perfection that the modern day spark plug represents is also illustrative of how innovation and perfection can be synergistic to achieve ultimate competitive advantage for firms.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on February 17, 2013




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