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Practice Continuous Innovation

http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/08/17/why-amazon-cant-make-a-kindle-in-the-usa/

 

How whole industries disappear

Take the story of Dell Computer [DELL] and its Taiwanese electronics manufacturer. The story is told in the brilliant book by Clayton Christensen, Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang, The Innovator’s Prescription :

ASUSTeK started out making the simple circuit boards within a Dell computer. Then ASUSTeK came to Dell with an interesting value proposition: “We’ve been doing a good job making these little boards. Why don’t you let us make the motherboard for you? Circuit manufacturing isn’t your core competence anyway and we could do it for 20% less.”

Dell accepted the proposal because from a perspective of making money, it made sense: Dell’s revenues were unaffected and its profits improved significantly. On successive occasions, ASUSTeK came back and took over the motherboard, the assembly of the computer, the management of the supply chain and the design of the computer. In each case Dell accepted the proposal because from a perspective of making money, it made sense: Dell’s revenues were unaffected and its profits improved significantly. However, the next time ASUSTeK came back, it wasn’t to talk to Dell. It was to talk to Best Buy and other retailers to tell them that they could offer them their own brand or any brand PC for 20% lower cost. As The Innovator’s Prescription concludes:

Bingo. One company gone, another has taken its place. There’s no stupidity in the story. The managers in both companies did exactly what business school professors and the best management consultants would tell them to do—improve profitability by focus on on those activities that are profitable and by getting out of activities that are less profitable.

 

 

A chain reaction of decline

Pisano and Shih continue:

“So the decline of manufacturing in a region sets off a chain reaction. Once manufacturing is outsourced, process-engineering expertise can’t be maintained, since it depends on daily interactions with manufacturing. Without process-engineering capabilities, companies find it increasingly difficult to conduct advanced research on next-generation process technologies. Without the ability to develop such new processes, they find they can no longer develop new products. In the long term, then, an economy that lacks an infrastructure for advanced process engineering and manufacturing will lose its ability to innovate.”

 

What’s to be done?

With such a complex societal problem, it’s hard not to start from Albert Einstein’s insight: “The significant problems that we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Many actors will have to play a role.

·         Company leaders: Business leaders need to recommit themselves to continuous innovation and the values and practices that are necessary to accomplish that. i.e radical management. As Pisano and Shih write: “Whether you’re the US firm IBM [IBM] with a major research laboratory in Switzerland or the Swiss company Novartis [NYSE:NVS] operating in the biotech commons in the Boston area, sacrificing such a commons for short-term cost benefits is a risky proposition.”

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·         Accountants: Accountants need to get beyond the mental prison of cost accounting and embrace the thinking in throughput accounting that puts the emphasis on how companies can add new value, rather than just cutting costs.

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·         Management theorists and consultants: stop rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic of traditional management (e.g. by finding new and ingenious ways to cut costs) and start understanding and disseminating management theory that is fit for the 21st Century.

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·         Investors: Investors need to realize that the companies of the future are those that practice continuous innovation as Apple [AAPL], Amazon [AMZN] andSalesforce [CRM], as compared to companies practicing traditional management, such Wal-Mart [WMT], Cisco [CSCO] OR GE [GE]. Investors need to realize that short-term financial gains are ephemeral: the companies that will generate real value are those that do what is necessary to continuously innovate.

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·         Government: Government has a role to play in protecting and promoting fields of expertise or what Pisano and Shih call “the industrial commons”. Thus: “Government-sponsored endeavors that have made a huge difference in the past three decades include DARPA’s VLSI chip development program and Strategic Computing Initiative; the DOD’s and NASA’s support of supercomputers and of NSFNET (an important contributor to the Internet); and the DOD’s support of the Global Positioning System, to mention a handful.”

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·         Politicians: At a time of poisonously divisive political debate, in which candidates recite anti-government mantras and call for “getting government out of the way of the private sector”, it is time for serious politicians to step up and examine which parts of the private sector are fostering, and which parts are destroying, the economy of the country. They must stop embodying e.e. cummings definition of a politician as “an ass upon which everyone has sat except a man.”

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·         Economists: Economists need to realize that merely adding up the numbers is not enough. They have to look at the meaning behind the numbers. When they trumpet their finding that “Chinese goods are only 1% of the U.S. economy”, it’s akin to saying “we kept the house but gave away the keys.”

 

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