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Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: Innovation Doesn’t Happen By Accident or Does It?
Publisher, Chaille Brindley, comments on the need for innovation in the industry and what it will take to achieve the next big thing.

By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 5/1/2012

                I have been thinking a lot lately about what the pallet of the future may look like. This mental exercise has been inspired by a number of pallet companies that are launching new concepts, products or designs that have recently attracted our attention. A few of these are yet to hit the market and as such, we are bound by confidentiality agreements. So I can’t really talk about those yet. The sudden onslaught of new ideas has me wondering why it has taken so long for the pallet to change. Although there have been various innovations tried through the years, the pallet has remained virtually the same for the majority of recent history except for a few rare products that have garnered limited market share.

                Why does a pallet have to be either a stringer or a block style? Couldn’t there be a hybrid option? Why do pallets have to be made out of primarily only one material? If beverage companies can innovate when it comes to something as simple as water, can’t even the basic pallet offer potential for innovation? I think the answer is yes. Sometimes our own expertise can get in the way. Sure the skeptics may be right. There will be plenty of losers before you find an idea that really catches on. But if we refuse to innovate because past efforts did not work, we are limiting ourselves to our current product offering. And in the future, somebody else may develop a better way of doing things because we refused to try new things.

                The best problem solvers see a complex problem through multiple lenses. You have to stop and look at the situation from multiple angles. You may be too close to the problem to be realistic about potential solutions.  Ironically, the more experience you have, the harder it will be to break from conventional mindsets.

                Leading companies often get stuck in old business models. Kodak engineers developed an early version of the digital camera, while the rest of the company remained focused on chemical film processing. Today, Kodak is a shell of its former self having filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Corporate America is full of companies that have lost out on future growth due to a lack of innovation.

                You have to stop and ask, “What is the real core issue here? How else might we define this problem? How are customer preferences changing?” This process will lead you to break from convention and try things that others dismiss before ever giving it a chance.

                You may discover that this process disturbs some in your business. To which I say, “Good! A little tension never hurt anyone if you manage it well to produce results.” Some companies value harmony above competitive tension to its peril. I am starting to believe that good leaders may need to foster healthy debate within a company. If we interact with only those who agree with us, we lose out on a valuable perspective that may hold the key to the solution we are seeking.

                You may need to find some companies that have faced similar problems in a different industry to figure out innovation solutions that could possibly work in your business. Look for credible mavericks that look at the world a different way and can help you reframe an issue.

                Fueling creativity starts with reimagining what you do. You don’t just supply pallets or lumber to customers. That isn’t much of a corporate vision.  The bigger and more important your purpose is, the more passion it has the potential to create within your workforce. 

                And you have to celebrate and recognize good ideas from the bottom up. Employees respond to what is rewarded, punished and ignored. Most companies give lip service to innovation, but they don’t really reward it. Rewards may extend well beyond monetary contribution. It likely starts with praise, advancement opportunities, extra perks, etc. 

                Realize that innovation comes at the price of many failures. You will likely fail many times before getting the right solution. I am reminded of the famous innovator, James Dyson, who developed the Dyson Vacuum cleaner with its unique ball pivot system and cyclonic design. Dyson tried more than 5,100 prototypes before discovering the right design. Most innovations in history came after countless setbacks, mistakes and even failures.

                Empowering employees to analyze their work flow and consider improvements is a big step in developing an innovation culture. In this way, everyone at your company can be an innovator. You could even hold innovation challenges that provide incentives and recognitions for employees to develop solutions to problems. I believe one major step that a company can take is to provide non-production employees an opportunity to spend company time working on new products and services.  Consider assigning employees 10% of their time to think about and experiment with new products services or enhancements for existing products and services. This way your managers, operational staff, and sales staff know that the company values innovation enough to put company resources and time behind this process.

                The current issue focuses on innovation including an article on the latest supplier developments that you will find at EXPO Richmond, the premier industry trade show that happens every two years. Read more about this exciting event on page 31.

                This issue features an article on the latest developments with CHEP and its integration with IFCO Systems. These companies are combining strengths and focusing on innovation to drive costs out of the supply chain. CHEP plans to tweak its existing manufacturing and repair systems around the world and has unveiled a number of strategies using best practices from its various operations.

                Recently, I have come across pallet companies that are experimenting with new materials and designs as well as entirely new services, such as specialized fulfillment and logistics. I believe the companies that are willing to take risks will be positioned the best for the future.

                Sure, some risks will not pay off. But if you don’t take risks, you are likely to lose out in the future regardless.

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