I learned innovation’s proper perspective when I had the privilege of translating Hiroyuki Hirano’s book, JIT Is Flow, from the crude Jangalese in which it was written to the king’s English (or at least the twisted version of English I know). Hirano is a brilliant guy and he wrote a section comparing manufacturing survival to the Theory of Evolution.
Evolution is basically built around the idea that every species has its freaks and mutations loitering around the fringes, most of which cannot survive and soon die. But every now and then there is a radical change in the environment or a new predator comes along and the species is in trouble. Inevitably, one of those fringe mutants happens to be ideally suited to cope with the new challenge. The rest of the species either recognizes the power of the mutant and breeds with it, assuring the survival of its offspring, or it fails to take advantage of the power of the mutant and dies.
Hirano’s analogy is perfect. Every industry has its ventures and startups around the fringes driven by innovative people with wild ideas – most of them unworkable or impractical, but with the rare gem like Bill Gates. Imitating Bill Gates is great – if you have the stomach for it. Your odds would be better if you took the money available to invest in your innovation to Las Vegas and put it all on #22 for one spin of the roulette wheel. We certainly need people of the Gates and Edison sort, but adopting their blend of ‘one part genius – one part kamikaze pilot’ as advocated by the folks at McKenzie and Wharton in the name of innovation is pretty poor advice for management. The lean model has been sitting in Georgetown for over twenty years – the mutation that can save the species. Instead, the management gurus have been unable to realize it’s saving power, so they have all trudged off to stare at Bill Gates for a while to see if they can breed with him.