Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Innovation with Perfection: When Parts Become the Whole

Innovation is seen as the hallmark of creative development while perfection is seen as the surrogate of supreme quality. Customer delight arises from a combination of innovation and perfection. Innovatively designed products that are made to perfection surprise, delight and inspire customers. From an economic point of view, a combination of innovation and perfection results in greater productivity and sustainability. The beauty of this combination is that it is applicable not only to products and services but also to processes. Generally, however, innovation and perfection are seen to be somewhat antithetical to each other, with innovative products running the risk of failure and perfect products being a result of highly standardized inputs and processes, proven in millions of repetitive cycles. This intriguing reality has probably a socio-economic behavioural causation too; one can wait for innovation but not eternally and one can seek perfection but not at the cost of immediate needs.

While innovation could be a result of spontaneous intuition or diligent serendipity, and perfection could be a result of a mind-set steeped in conformity and quality, in most cases innovation and perfection are highly organized activities requiring time and effort. In principle, the greater the time and effort expended on innovation and perfection, the greater is the possibility of innovation and perfection. The pathway to innovation on which time and effort are spent is often dictated by the target of innovation. The pathway to perfection on which time and effort are spent is dictated by the level of specifications on one hand and usage feedback on the gap between specifications and requirements on one hand and the gap between specifications and performance on the other.  The targets of innovation and perfection are, themselves, set somewhat subconsciously by what humans as the experimenters see as the limits for innovation or perfection. As this process is complex, practitioners seek optimality which ironically could be sub-optimization.


In reality, innovation that we see in products or services is invariably preceded by innovation in basic technologies. The innovative televisions of today are made possible because of innovations in display screen technologies such as OLED that were seeded a few years ago for palm size screens. When several innovative technologies become available novel products incorporating such technologies get to be developed, albeit with a lag. Strange as it may seem, rarely innovation gets defined ab initio at the end-product level. This facet of innovation in multiple technology substrates represents both an opportunity and a challenge for product level innovation. The opportunity arises in terms of choice and speed while the challenge arises because of imbalance in innovation of parts. Rarely one gets to have a total product technology mission that targets innovation in raw materials, components, integrating systems, manufacturing equipment, production processes, and end-products as one holistic mission.

That perfection does not necessarily move with innovation, and vice versa, is fairly obvious. Apple which has seemingly attained perfection with its iPhone range until recently (say, till iPhone 5) has not necessarily been innovative in all the departments. On the other hand, as the innovation level (as exemplified by a slim form factor) got bumped up in the iPhone 6 range, perfection lagged as evidenced by bending phones, protruding camera modules and blurred images in some lots. Samsung has been innovative in form factor and stylus based phones but never reached the top in terms of perfection. Incorporation of OIS modules in slim phones represent a greater challenge in terms of achieving perfection rather than integrating innovation. Inevitably, every first generation innovative product, be it cell phone or holography headset, emerges to be a rather bulky, blunt or crude form of innovation (at least, until after the next generation products are unveiled).

Parts and the whole

The author of this blog once wrote a post titled “Style is Substance: Management of Product Design and Manufacture”, Strategy Musings, August 8, 2009 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2009/08/style-is-substance-management-of.html). The post argued that the style of a product demands substance in design and manufacture of a product, and boosts efficiency, encourages creativity, promotes flexibility and drives growth but also demands management competence to ensure all of this. The blog post was, in fact, inspired by the crop of stylistic products that began to be unveiled during those years. Much intellectual water has flowed under the bridge since then with rapidly evolving products and amazingly shortening life cycles. While style and substance seem to have stood up over the last six years as a solid pair, perfection and innovation seem to be moving out of step, of late. This can be traced to the mismatch of perfection and innovation in the parts and the whole.

Product design as a technical discipline has such versatile facets that a few parts can make a significant change to performance but such trend can neither be unlimited nor perpetual. For example, a superior drive-train can step up an automobile to a different performance trajectory but without matching strides in overall strength-weight parameters or navigation systems, enhancement in performance of parts would soon be blocked. When breakthrough products are conceptualized, every part needs to be thought of for innovation and perfection. When Airbus A380 was designed as the largest commercial plane, each and every part had to be redefined to newer standards. The difference between a spaceship for a lunar expedition and a spaceship for mars mission would need a complete conceptual redesign. The challenge of perfect innovation lies in absorbing the approaches from such uncommon products to common products.

Perfect innovation

Perfect innovation may be defined as an organized process in which each component of a product is covered with innovation. This requires concurrent engineering and manufacture of a different detail and differentiated calibre. To institutionalize perfect innovation, a firm has to approach product development and commercialization in two distinct tracks. The first track covers the routinely followed quick-upgrade product cycle. This would incorporate typically certain innovative upgrades to differentiate products across generations; such product cycles may alternately focus on innovation or perfection. Typical examples are found in white goods and consumer goods sectors. The improvements in loading systems or washing cycles in washing machines, enhancements in purification and water recovery in water purifiers, integration of new materials in cooking systems, miniaturization of routers and dongles, enhancements in pixel density of display screens, improvements in aperture sizes of camera sensors and inverter integrated air conditioners are examples of such routine product developments.

The second track, which actually is the track of perfect innovation, reappraises the entire product concept in terms of the total design and functionality of the end-product at one level and the design and manufacture of every material, component, system and assembly at another level. The first editions of digital camera, smart phone, flat panel television, and several such others represent close examples of perfect innovation. The reasons are that each of the products had several totally new components (not merely upgrades of existing ones) involving new materials, new designs and new manufacturing processes. All of these products had new operating systems as well. Introduction of digital technology has enabled definition of metrics for measuring innovation and perfection. Until the entry of digital technology, mechanical fits and tolerances determined the perfection of manufacture. Digital technology helps monitor the perfection of manufacture as well as on-site performance on a continuing basis in critical equipment such as medical imaging equipment, diagnostic equipment and infusion equipment.

Bill of innovation

Perfect innovation is a multi-stage iterative process which starts in the first phase with a total redefinition of the product concept. This stage can be applied to any product, from a telephone or a television to a hotel room or operation theatre. This stage requires truly out-of-the-box thinking on product configuration, which could reposition even plateauing or declining products. For example, the land telephone which has reached a stage of plateau can be subjected to this process.  From a mere dialing instrument for physical communication, it can be converted into a home management robot. At the very least all the functionalities of a smart phone like multiple ringtones, display screens, voice assistance, voice recording and play back, and a number of utilities such as alarm, compass and calendar can be incorporated. At a higher level, it can be embedded with a mini-computer which can provide instructions to various devices and equipment in home, serve as daily organizer and also serve as a real-time camera to record entrants to the home. A fundamental re-positioning of a traditional product, based on a new technology substrate, is the first phase of perfect innovation.

The next phase is the crucial operative phase which comprises four parallel inter-connected streams of technology substrate choice, detailed bill of materials, bill of innovation corresponding to bill of materials and component-specific manufacturing perfection scheme, including testing and quality assurance and equipment planning. These four streams encompass the product on an end-to-end basis, from design to delivery. At the end of this second phase, the first prototypes of the new breakthrough product would be available. The third final phase is the iterative phase when the prototypes are honed to perfection, adding incremental innovation and perfection to each component to perfect the overall product style and substance. At the end of this phase, the product would be ready for homologation and commercial manufacture. As opposed to a typical 6 month upgrade cycle, perfect innovation would require a minimum development and commercialization cycle time of 3 to 5 years. Firms would do well to split their R&D and Manufacturing functions into Improvement Business Units and Redefinition Business Units.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on September 01, 2015

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