The Misguided Fear of Innovation

Suppliers and shops should seek and celebrate new ideas and products.

Like a lot of people, I’m always intrigued by new and shiny things. Some see it as a lack of focus, but I like to call it curiosity.

Innovation comes in many different forms. There can be revolutionary-type changes by which a product or program is completely altered and transformed with new features and benefits, and then there are the subtle changes that may not be as noticeable, but in their own, incremental ways are game-changers worth noting.

I speak of innovation after coming across a few articles on the subject that caught my attention. The first was from the Conference Board, a membership and research association made up of thousands of businesses. This group surveyed more than 1,000 of its C-suite executives about what they saw as encouraging, and also what made them fearful.

Innovation is one of those feared items that keep many CEOs up at night. In fact, it was second on the list, as many of the execs say developing new business models to accommodate disruptive technologies is a major concern of theirs.

“Less than half of CEOs (48 percent) see their organization as a technology leader in their industries,” the survey reports. “Moreover, less than 10 percent of CEOs globally say they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with their organization’s ability to innovate, and they continue to struggle with how to measure innovation.”

In a business world in which “innovation” seems to be the word that everyone is throwing around these days, it is remarkable to me that only half the companies surveyed believe they are innovative leaders in their sectors and so few are confident in their own companies’ ability to innovate.

Another study this year of global corporate executives by North Carolina State University and Protiviti found that they believed their two biggest risks to be the rapid speed of disruptive technology, and how their own organizations were slow to change and adopt.

While those in the finishing industry may not see a lot of new technology and innovation in equipment and products, I certainly know of operations that strive for excellence and are constantly seeing new and better technology to win and keep customers. It is a constant race to satisfy customers, maintain regulatory standards and insure profitability—all while juggling other balls in the air and trying to be home by 7 p.m. for dinner with the family. It’s a tough game.

I had a long conversation with a major finishing chemical supplier a while back that started when I questioned why it never promoted any of its chemistries as “new and improved,” when I knew for a fact this company was one of the leading innovators in the industry. The simple answer was this supplier didn’t want competitors to know what it was doing behind its lab walls, and it was more than happy to tamp down its innovation as a way to keep and maintain market share.

There’s a is a fine line between announcing to the world that you may have built a better mousetrap and not letting everyone know exactly how the springs and bolts work.

At Products Finishing, we celebrate innovation. We write about it, we detail it, and we hoist it on our shoulders and parade it around the room, because we know that finishers and coaters are thirsty for the innovation that drives the industry. They want improved throughput. They want to be able to replace their hexavalent chromium. They want to reduce their phosphates, and hang parts faster and better than ever before.

I know that innovation is hard, and it is costly. A recent Harvard Business Review article states: “Innovation is famously difficult—many projects end up losing money, frustrating employees, and going nowhere.”

I said I am a curious cat. At conferences and trade shows, I love to sit in on presentations in which PhDs explain the latest and greatest plating chemistry, and how their research shows that efficiencies can be improved and, most importantly, rejects can be avoided. The gleam in their eyes is the equivalent of a kid coming home from school with an A in algebra and mom sticking that paper squarely on the fridge with a fancy magnet. You get the picture.

There are some who have said that finishing technology hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, but I would disagree. Change is incremental and discernable. A slight change can be just as good as a major overhaul. Improvements can be magnified by millimeters, inches and percentages. Wired magazine calls it evolution vs. revolution. It says a “gradual evolution where tiny wins build on each other is a more sustainable and effective solution. Small initiatives are perfect for this because they build momentum and set the stage for larger initiatives to be successful.”

Innovation, no matter how big or small, is a reason to celebrate. It should not be feared. It should not be dismissed. Not when you see the gleam in the eye of the person standing in front of the projector.

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