Analog Innovation

When I hear ‘Innovation’ my mind thinks ‘digital’. Maybe it’s because of the time I spent at Google or just in general the culture around start-ups but this is my default. I imagine a new website or app; maybe social integration or ratings into an application.

I think of a bed that manages my sleep from end to end. It measures my sleep, connects to my WiFi and controls the lights and temperature of my room to keep me in great sleep cycles. It might even control my laptop and shut it down so I can’t stay up late watching TV or my sound system to play calming white noise. That’s where my mind goes when I think innovation. A connected world.

But more often than not, innovation is much simpler than that. For razor blades it wasn’t a new Mach 7 Turbo Jet Glide by Gillette, but a simple ‘Our Blades are F***ing Great’ slogan and price point that made the Dollar Shave Club a $1 billion dollar acquisition this year.

One story I heard this week as a warning against consultants was about a toothpaste company who found they were shipping a handful of boxes without the tube of paste inside causing issues with their distributors. They hired some expensive management consultants to examine their operations and the team came up with a great system that weighed each box at the final stage of packaging. If a box was too light an alarm would chime and one of the line-workers was tasked with removing the package from the line.

After a few weeks the alarms stopped completely and the team was brought in to see why the new system wasn’t working. They checked the wiring, examined the logs, and finally spoke to the line-manager. He had been so frustrated by the alarm that he set up a large fan facing the line and it simply blew the boxes into a container if they were empty. It’s a simple and innovative solution that serves as a reminder to not over engineer a solution.

My favorite examples of this simple innovation happens in the men’s room. There are two key problems with Men’s room and they boil down to Splash Damage from the urinal. You could spend a lot of money designing a urinal that is mathematically calculated to reduce splash back no matter where the pressure is coming from.  … or you can put a small sticker of a target onto the bowl in a minimal splash zone and the problem is solved. Nothing makes it onto the floor and everyone is happy.

The second Men’s room innovation I love is found at the Georgetown Business School bathrooms where they have this simple design. IMG_20131207_094521For the women readers let me assure you – the designer is a genius. Normally men have to decide between risking splash damage from using the child-urinal or standing far too close to a man’s private space. As a rule you should always leave 1 urinal between you and the next person. Sporting events being really the only exception.

This design solves that problem beautifully without the need for massive Japanese robot toilets that produce a privacy hologram or anything else digital. They simply solve the problem in way that has significant impact.

Innovation doesn’t have to be digital and in fact should be platform agnostic but all too often we get caught up in the shiny new gadget, the expensive weighing-alarm system or a mobile app. But in reality Innovation is just a way to solve a problem that is outside the standard process.