“It’s the smile, stupid.”
With apologies to Bill Clinton, this slogan describes the power of one of the simplest yet most powerful competitive weapons for service companies in modern business. According to Tom Kelley, general manager of the California-based industrial design firm IDEO and coauthor with Jonathan Littman of “The Ten Faces of Innovation,” it’s also one of the reasons why Japanese airlines have the edge on their U.S. rivals.
A frequent traveler to Japan for both business and family reasons, Kelley says he noticed the difference between United Airlines and Japan Airlines when he boarded his first trans-Pacific flight — all the flight attendants smiled as his family came onboard.
Extolling the virtue of customer service, he asks: “Everyone thinks innovation is expensive, but how much can a smile cost?”
A smile may not be considered an innovation on a par with the Sony Walkman, but the authors’ definition of innovation is broader than most: people making new ideas happen “through their imagination, willpower, and perseverance.”
Is it worth the effort? The Economist described innovation as “the single most important ingredient in any modern economy,” and the stock market seems to agree.
According to a Boston Consulting Group survey for BusinessWeek, innovative Asian companies are increasing shareholder returns by more than double the average — rising at a rate of 12 percent compared with the market average of 5.4 percent over the 10 years to December 2005. At a time when Japanese companies are talking more about shareholder value, this difference is not to be sniffed at.
One of the hottest topics in business in recent years, innovation has been the focus of books ranging from W. Chan Kim and Rene Mauborgne’s “Blue Ocean Strategy” to Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.” Kelley’s edge lies in the fact that he is a businessman, not an academic, and readers from any industry can learn from the experiences of his award-winning company that has been nicknamed “Innovation U.”
While his best-selling first book, “The Art of Innovation,” looked at how his company went about the process of innovation, his latest work is about the people who make it happen. IDEO has developed 10 roles that people can play in fostering ideas and countering naysayers, which it labels as the learning personas of the Anthropologist, Experimenter and Cross-Pollinator; the organizing personas of the Hurdler, the Collaborator and the Director; and the building personas of the Experience Architect, Set Designer, Caregiver and Storyteller.
While the smile may be the key tool of the Caregiver, the office environment is the stage for the Set Designer. Anthropologists gain insights from observing human behavior, while the Collaborators have a key role in bringing groups of people together across disciplines and departments, the authors argue.
Thankfully the jargon ends there, as a wealth of interesting examples are used to explore how each persona helps create a culture of innovation. Kazuko Koike acted as a Cross-Pollinator when she took generic beer cans back from the United States to Japan, inspiring the development of the “no brand” Mujirushi Ryohin chain of clothing and household goods stores across Japan and Europe that are earning sales of over $1 billion a year.
The power of the Storyteller to inspire change by making an “emotional connection” through tales is shown in an example that Tokyoites will readily identify with: Hachiko, the statue at Shibuya Station of the faithful dog that waited patiently for his master’s return.
Pointing out how the story reinforces Japanese values, Kelley and Pittman write: “Hachiko’s story has achieved such mythic status that I’d wager nearly every adult in Japan — and most Japanese school kids — knows at least the basic outline of the story and its message of honor, duty, and faithfulness . . . Hachiko died seventy years ago, but his story still has a long time to run.”
If there’s a criticism of this book, it lies in the fact that it is a one-sided account from IDEO, ignoring the work of other leaders in this field. The account of an office where plane wings hang from the ceiling, office cubicles are rearranged as bars and brainstorming workers scribble ideas on the wall in the “innovation lab” seems a world away from the typically bland and gray office environment in Japan.
But the principles that the authors espouse are applicable to all companies, and Japanese firms need to take note if they wish to stay competitive. While Honda, Sony and Toyota Motor have been rated among the world’s top innovators, Asian companies are in the minority among the recognized global innovation powerhouses such as Apple, Google and 3M.
Nevertheless, Japan’s quick and cheap barbershop chain QB House has proved that innovation is not about money or technology, so catching up is not going to require a huge amount of resources.
Instead, Japanese firms might start looking at the wealth of employees they have whose talents may be unrecognized and unrewarded. Identifying the 10 personas may not be easy, but those companies that do so will likely have something to smile about.