On March 11, 2011 at 2:46 p.m., a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan. It released tsunami waves as high as 130 feet that swept across 217 square miles. This unexpected disaster carried tons of debris out to sea and cost the country billions of dollars in damages. More than 15,000 lives were lost.
This catastrophe also left supply chain offices in limbo, as they struggled to calculate how or if this disaster affected them. For three weeks after the tragedy, Jabil employees scrutinized data from various systems, trying to get an answer. They needed to oversee changes in the supply chain if a disaster like this happened again. They wanted to be able to quickly tell how it affected them.
This prompted Erich Hoch, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Jabil Packaging Solutions, who was overseeing the supply chain organization at the time, to call Mudit Bajaj, vice president of advanced analytics solutions, and charge him with creating a digital supply chain control tower in three months.
Bajaj’s team immediately sprang into action.
"We just put things on the whiteboard and started working on it. No planning, nothing,” Bajaj said. “We knew in three months, we had to deliver something that needed to bring value.”
The prototype was completed in the allotted time. Then, in August 2013, they successfully launched Jabil InControl™, which is now a cloud-based software solution that provides visibility, instant collaboration and risk management across the entire supply chain.
Like any other organization, Jabil thrives on innovation. Breakthrough technologies, new ways of building customer engagement or advances in the digitalization of the supply chain make the company stronger. This was the case with Jabil InControl.
However, people sometimes express skepticism that a large corporation can be truly innovative, citing a reluctance to break from tradition, lack of time and the inherent risk of promoting new ideas as common challenges, according to the Harvard Business Review.
While it can be challenging, new ideas and updates to old processes are necessary for a business to remain relevant and successful. For example, the New York Times, first published in the mid-19th century, has reinvented itself in the digital age as New York Times Digital.
So, what does it take for large companies to inspire innovation? Here are five mantras to live by:
Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, got the idea for Quicken financial software as he watched his wife struggle to keep track of their finances. “Often the surprises that lead to new business ideas come from watching other people work and live their normal lives,” Cook said.
The 2011 Japanese tsunami drew attention to a glaring problem: a lack of supply chain visibility.
“Every one of our customers, basically not one of them had full visibility into their supply chain,” said Ross Valentine, senior director of product line management. “The right information was not getting in the right hands of people on our customer sites and we wanted to help move our customers forward on their digitalization journey.”
That is why Jabil built InControl and offered it as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution. The platform drives predictive, actionable insights with automatic recommendations and alerts for unsurpassed real-time supply chain assessment, guidance and management. By incorporating real-time connectivity and advanced predictive analytics, it allows unprecedented insight into the supply chain, thus solving a crucial problem.
“Maybe the same problems existed for the last 50, 60, 70 years,” said Valentine. “But we now have new capabilities, technologies and research, which helps us tackle these problems.”
“This is typical Berlin hot air. The product is worthless,” wrote Heinrich Dreser, head of Bayer’s Pharmacological Institute, rejecting an invention by German chemist Felix Hoffman: the aspirin.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” scoffed Ken Olson, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp, in 1977.
“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible,” a Yale professor responded to Fred Smith’s paper, which proposed reliable overnight delivery. Smith went on to found FedEx.
Warner Brothers thought there was no future for movies with sound. More than 20 companies rejected the Xerox machine. Atari and Hewlett-Packard turned down Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer. These are more than amusing stories about rejected inventions that later became wildly successful; they are examples of people who were well-established and respected in their fields rejecting creative ideas. This illustrates what organizational psychologists at Cornell University have dubbed “creativity bias,” a tendency to dismiss creativity when the outcome is unpredictable and promotes a sense of uncertainty.
Most large corporations have processes constructed to deliver a predictable outcome. Innovation requires breaking that process, fracturing the ability to anticipate a specific outcome. Too often, companies get so stuck in what has worked for them in the past that they fail to experiment with what might work better in the future.
To overcome this fear, companies need to shift their focus from delivering a specific outcome to learning something new that can serve to better their product, service or business down the road.
“I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. “If we can get processes decentralized so that we can do a lot of experiments without it being very costly, we’ll get a lot more innovation.”
With building InControl, not only did Jabil invest time, money and manpower into a project that may or may not benefit the company, but it took a chance on inventing a largely unprecedented method for supply chain visibility. The way that analytics are built into InControl – embedding a technology into the fabric of an application – had never been attempted before in the space. This innovation also furthered the shift in Jabil’s reputation as being entirely supply chain-focused and began building its standing as a digital solutions company.
As Valentine said, “The greater the risk, the greater the rewards can be.”
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After experimenting with thousands of materials to be the long-life filament for the lightbulb, Thomas Edison wryly told a reporter, “I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
The freedom to make mistakes is necessary for innovative success. All of the greatest innovators made mistakes and used that experience to make their product or business stronger.
“Being allowed to fail and move forward in a more positive direction; I think that really inspires me,” Valentine said.
“Doing innovation encourages people to make mistakes, think, be creative, and try different things out. You’re giving them more freedom to make mistakes,” Bajaj said.
Especially in a large corporation, mistakes can be costly, which makes employees and leaders hesitant to deviate from the established processes and try something new.
“One of the challenges has been because of the operational focus...I think there always ends up being a business plan,” Valentine said. “I think you've got to look at that as research and development, trial and error. You've got to have some willingness to accept the risk that it may fail. But we need to learn from that failure.”
Scott Cook emphasizes the importance of giving employees freedom to experiment and make mistakes. “Our culture opens us to allowing lots of failures while harvesting the learning,” he said. “It’s what separates an innovation culture from a normal corporate culture.”
However, there should always be a maintained level of accountability. Just because employees have freedom to make mistakes does not mean that they should act careless or thoughtless. Each mistake should bring the team closer to the goal.
As Elon Musk said, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
While creating Jabil InControl, the team prioritized “design thinking,” a way of approaching a problem using the sensibilities and methods of a designer for matching the customer’s needs with what is technologically feasible.
The team consulted supply chain practitioners and business executives to ask them how they thought supply chains would be performing or managed in the next five to 10 years and what capabilities they would need to manage those supply chains. This project was largely user-focused and collaborative.
“It was really all about what they need to see in front of them, how they interact with that, how they interact with their customers, their suppliers,” Valentine said.
Between their position as a supply chain practitioner and collaboration with others in the business, the Jabil team had a clear picture of what is required to oversee multi-million dollar supply chains. However, to gain software knowledge, they partnered with other companies and utilized their expertise on SaaS and digital platform, cloud-based technology and security.
“I think you have to listen to people that are highly logical and less of a risk taker,” Valentine said. “You've also got to talk to people who are a little more crazy and willing to do some things. You've got to span across that entire spectrum and get inputs.”
Looking in the mirror after trying on liquid foundation for the first time, 13-year-old Balanda Atis felt a pang of disappointment. The makeup left an unattractive, ashy-white smear over her face. As it turned out, cosmetic companies simply didn’t make a shade that suited her dark, Haitian-American skin tone.
Atis joined L’Oreal as a chemist in 1999. In 2006, when the company launched a new line of products designed to suit a wider variety of skin tones, Atis saw that they still didn’t measure up and informed the head of L’Oreal’s makeup division, who told her, “If you don’t like it, then fix it.”
Although she developed mascara formulas, her passion drove her to use her spare time solving a problem that customers cared about. It also attracted other scientists who shared her passion. The small team utilized the company’s lab and started traveling around the country with L’Oreal, gathering data on different skin tones. And when they achieved success, the company rewarded her. Today, Atis manages L’Oreal’s Women of Color Lab in New Jersey.
“Not every company allows you to touch so many parts of the business, experiment and take this much risk,” Atis said. “They believed in us, provided us with autonomy and forced us to challenge ourselves. It wasn’t just business, it was personal.”
Allowing employees to pursue work that they are personally invested in kindles innovation. Empowered employees feel motivated to work on problems they care about.
“True innovation comes from people with a passion to create something new… What inspires me is to make a dent in the universe,” Bajaj said, quoting Steve Jobs. “Create something new that really makes a difference.”
Valentine said he is inspired by the ability to make a positive impact and help connect the world, and working at Jabil positions him perfectly to do that.
“There’s very few companies in the world which touch as many industries or as many innovative start-up companies, all the way through to large enterprise companies, which really are bringing brand new game-changing technologies,” Valentine said. “I think you look at Jabil in the middle of that whole ecosystem…being in a place where we can really influence the direction of our planet. It becomes really inspiring.”
"This project of InControl, I think it's pure innovation,” Bajaj said. “We're looking at things differently...there's a lot more to be done, but I think we're moving in the right direction."