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How innovation is handled in your company?

Why innovation isn’t always good: Amazon example

Some weeks ago, on the “net”, was published a post that highlighted a strange situation present in the Amazon warehouses: where is higher the level of automation is higher number of employee’s injuries, too. The numbers are very heavy, since we are talking about an increase of 50 percent, related to all company’s warehouses and the double than the respective market statistics.

Here you can find the article:


This situation seems to overturn the paradigm related to the implementation of all the innovations in all the factories: to push the operative efficiencies and to increase and safeguard the psychophysical health of operators.

The innovation, in this case, regards the introduction of automatic trolleys that carry the products to the bins, avoiding the operators to “grind kilometres”. The workers, that were interviewed, reported, of course, a positive thinking about this kind of support for their operation. This because, the trolleys have permitted to them to increase the volume of processed items, passing from 100 to 400 per hour, and this, probably had an economic benefit, too.

I don’t know if, this article has unleashed a flurry of critics in the States, but we do not want to go into a similar mess, because we want to remain focused on the innovation and its benefits. But, before to talk about these last ones, it is important to define the footprint of the first ones.

The today’s mantra: innovation everywhere

At today, the most famous mantra is: “push the innovation everywhere”, like a rocket to launch on the moon. Really, when a new product or a new process or a new machinery land in our plants, we live the same experience of the first jump on the moon. But what happens if something goes wrong? Nobody thinks about it and we can often see the results: blood and tears. Even for the littlest enhancements.

In fact, generally, when you talk about innovation, people think at automation, anthropomorphic robot or something related to the artificial intelligence. Instead innovation could be referred to the Kanban procedure launch in a production line or a logistic evolution in a warehouse, too.

Someone could say that innovation is everything and could be found everywhere, like the air. In fact, without innovation, companies die, but the same happens for those that do it badly, not planning the steps, not planning the downgrade of the present situation to the starting point. In fact the most of the people look at the innovation like something stand alone, while we must consider it linked an array of other variables, like the environment, the company history, the operative people and so on. It depends form the company background and from its mindset related to the innovation spirit.

In this direction, which is the best way to implement the innovation? Starting from the company low levels, driving step by step as Kaizen philosophy teaches or from the company head like Kaikaku philosophy suggests?

Neither of this two: no one can lead to the desired result without the contribution of the other. There can be no board-driven innovation without the right involvement of the operating levels, nor can advanced improvements in small steps be considered lasting without the support of top management.

Then, at the end, which pillars can be considered fundamental for the innovation?

Innovation pillars

The first step, of course, is to define what innovation is. Innovation is everything that is needed to solve customer problems, whether they are internal or external. If innovation does not hit this point, it is useless.

Furthermore, innovation is a function of the technological step necessary for its implementation. If this step is too high, there is a risk that the costs/benefits ratio is negligible. We must consider that, if the step of the innovation is too high, probably, it will be difficult to explain it to third party, and this could be a problem for its implementation. But a high innovation step is not always negative element: it means only that there is someone, with a so open mindset, to see forward two or three steps ahead. In this case, observing the principal focus about usability, it will be necessary to define several intermediate steps to be used to bring the company and drive it through this innovation path, to reach more easily the final goal.

Generally, innovation lies outside the consolidated (even it is more correct to talk about static mindset) boundaries of the company, even slightly outside its “core know-how”. Surely, outside its “comfort zone” as its implementation will cause headaches and sometimes disappointments. In any case, we must think “out of the box” (another loved mantra).

Another important point, the second, is the timing. Generally, the company lives with its own timing so, it is natural to try to wait for the right time. But usually it never comes because everyone say that they are busy and involved in other activities. So, the right time is now. If implementation is delayed, it could mean that it is not so fundamental for the company and more the delay become long more will be difficult to start.

This does not mean to start without planning, analysing and share concerns, but once the idea has passed all the “validation gates”, it is not necessary to waste time again in discussions. Even Napoleon, in the hall of fame od the strategists, knew the importance of the time, especially related to the goals. In his careful strategies, one of his major focus was to obtain small victories in truly short times, waiting for the great ones. This mindset was able to boost his troops good mood and good returns in terms of fame and glory. The same should be for corporate implementations. Maintaining our focus on our goal, we need to plan and choose punctually all the stages of the path, to consolidate them and finalize the final goal. Setting long-term goals, without intermediate “gates”, means open the door to defeats and disappointments.

In third position, in this ranking, we fill “the group and its management”. The team must be heterogeneous, complete of all possible needed skills, with good supporting players, some genius and a leader. Only one. Otherwise it will be impossible to reach a common direction. The innovation requests democratic results with a monarchy guide. The leader’s mission is to service the team, with the aim to reach the final goal. Form the group side, all the members must recognize the leader, that must be unconditionally supported by the direct boss and the board. Any uncertainty in this direction will open holes in the hull, with the risk of “embarking” a lot of water and sinking.

Innovation is often a risky mission, for this reason it is needed to have an excellent strategy, which also includes stops and sometimes retreats. In this last situation it is important to reserve any possibilities for the project downgrades, to permit any natural and orderly return to the starting point. There are many companies that have tried to implement an innovative step and then crash heavily, without being able to reposition themselves, from the technical and mental point of view, to the starting point. In these cases, the defeat is even double and deeper, since most of the times, the company rejects any future other innovative implementation. It must be clear, to the management board, that not all innovations are right for all companies or group. The strategic selection must be made at the beginning.

At last, but not least, we place the communication. Not communicating a project means not having faced it. Not communicating a result does mean not having achieved it. The classic example are the Vikings: they discovered America centuries before Christopher Columbus, but it was never known. And we know which is the result of this “silence”: for everyone Columbus was the first European to land in America.

At this point, the last item to understand is what gone wrong in the Amazon’s automated warehouses, since the company is not a novice in pursuing innovative steps. The collected data are the result of a design (or implementation) mistake or are simply related to a company’s policy that want to boost performances in its deliveries?

This last one could be another big deal, that we will face up in a next post.

Saulle Mattei

Author Saulle Mattei

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