"Most of us understand that innovation is enormously important. It's the only insurance against irrelevance…" This quote from Gary Hamel highlights an issue that we hear a lot about and that anyone in a technology economy will always be concerned about: innovation vs. irrelevance.
The idea of irrelevance keeps people up at night. Where there is competition, the long-term winner is almost always going to be the innovator. That is what the consultants, the technologists, and even the politicians preach.
So, what are we talking about when it comes to our day-to-day businesses and our daily obstacles and challenges? We are talking about how we work and how we think. These are not simple things to change or to improve; they involve being open, experimenting, and taking risks. When you are trying to get a project out on time and under budget, there is not much time for experimentation and we all work very hard to minimize risk. So, "innovation" for the long-term can sometimes seem like an impossible dream in the short-term.
PPC has found several methods vital to our pursuit of business innovation and we have built them into our way of life so that the short-term and the long-term stay synchronized and achievable without unnatural contortions. Build true innovation into everything and it stops seeming extraordinary and starts to feel natural.
This is how we did it - and how we do it.
Looking for Problems to Solve
Creativity is not the only ingredient to innovation. Though creativity of itself is a valuable and rewarding trait to have and to use, it is not always primary in the worlds of technology and business. Innovation comes from actually solving problems in new and better ways. The key to innovation is finding the problems, clarifying them, and solving them before others do. Problems may be solved creatively, but they may also be solved simply and plainly. The key is being accurate about what the root cause of the problem is.
We regularly have our engineers ride along with our customers' technicians to observe what they do and to discover what parts of their work are not satisfactory to them or to their end customers. We like to find problems before our competitors, obviously, but we sometimes even find them before our customers do. In this way, we can modify, invent, or enhance our products and services at a pace that is far ahead of the industry perception.
In addition to ride outs, we actively survey our customers with questions that may not have been addressed to them before. We spend a lot of time training our customers, not just on our products, but on techniques, architectures, and industry standards. While we train, we also receive a lot of information on how our customers interact with their customers, with the technologies, and with the industry. We have systematized the discovery of problems, rather than passively waiting for them to magically appear in the form of a complaint.
One of our main goals is teamwork and innovative thinking to create a strong, integrity-based business. We want to provide value, quality, and reliability for a diverse range of customers. Employees work with established and new technologies, systems, and processes — always learning, growing, and practizing their expertise.
We emphasize a lean approach and a cross-functional approach. We are not just addressing product features and benefits in our designs; we are addressing throughput, shipping, materials, employee health and many other variables in all our actions.
Thinking in silos doesn’t work. From the CEO to the receptionist, we have promoted a culture of collaboration, a culture of problem-seeking, and a culture of action. This milieu is augmented in all our processes, rewarded in every way we can, and has been very successful. It has resulted in many people wearing many hats, and all pulling in the same direction (mixed metaphor, yes, but still true).
And, if necessary, we look outside our walls to find the resources and skills/experience we need. In the interest of speed in our problem-solving, we often reach out to and collaborate with other organizations. When we focus on truly solving the problem, the usual difficulties about credit, responsibility, and negotiation take second seat to the long-term goal of innovation.
As stated earlier, the whole system requires regular feedback on products, services, solutions, problems, etc. We regularly provide our "customer-touching" people with questions to ask and require them to bring back a certain amount of information from each call or visit. That feedback is shared widely within the company. In addition, we have an inbound marketing philosophy that seeks, through our website and email campaigns, to inform and educate potential customers, while at the same time educating and informing us as to what things are like in their world.
Innovation requires a steady stream of feedback and so we have built this feedback stream into our processes.
Looking for Patterns
Often, what we are looking for is incremental innovation rather than radical innovation. While the brilliant idea that comes out of nowhere is always welcomed, it is more important to inculcate incremental innovation into everything. Radical innovation can require making big changes that will be painfully felt. Incremental innovation is much more doable. When it becomes a way of life it becomes natural. We have found that the best way to achieve this is to look for patterns. Find two similar situations and you may find a cause. Find ten similar situations and you may find a cause, a solution, and the ROI to make larger changes.
Our organization works in small iterative cycles - testing, prototyping, and learning fast. We see patterns emerging that lead us in the right direction. Sometimes the innovation becomes so obvious that we don’t even realize that changes we make ARE innovations. That's how deep it has to go for innovation to become the driving force in an organization.
As an example of a simple, incremental change that leads to innovation, PPC's machining operations achieved a 3.1%-point utilization improvement for 2016 over 2015. Faster setups and machining process changes yielded less component shortages for assembly. The number of assembly delays from missing components was cut in half. The operation became safer with several important improvements, including removing the hand cut operation, reducing slippery oil from the machining area, and powder coating critical guards. The warehouse operation improvement allowed us to increase production without adding any warehouse overhead. This is innovation by simply removing steps, errors, and waste.
PPC is proud of its worldwide reputation for innovation. Seeking out network issues or recurring problems in network components as technology advances ensures that our solutions exceed our customers' and the industry's expectations for value, quality and reliability.
PPC's design teams have developed many industry firsts, such as pushable fiber, universal crimp and compression connectors, continuity connectors, integrated weather sealing connectors, and many other true innovations that have revolutionized the industry. PPC designed the first locking HDMI cable for the retail and CEDIA markets, as well as zero and low compression force F connectors.
We like to find problems here and in the field; we look for patterns; we work together to actually solve them, and we make sure we measure and analyze results from improvements. This approach is vital to our ongoing mission to innovate to anticipate our customers' needs and desires.