What do Cornflakes, the microwave oven, Post-Its, the Walkman, Teflon, Scotchgard, Aspartame, Rogaine, Kitty Litter, Ivory soap, Velcro, Rayon, and Skateboards all have in common? None were planned! All were unexpected treasures found by observant individuals paying attention to what was right in front of them. While trying to get one thing right…the thing turned left, and they followed it.
That’s the power of observation. That’s the role of genchi genbutsu (go look, go see) in design and innovation.
Jim Jenks liked surfing, and he liked pizza. What he didn’t like was the flimsy trunks for surfing and the “blah” shorts sold in stores for going out to eat. One day, at a pizza joint in Encinitas, California, he looked down and said, “Look at this tablecloth. This print would make a great pair of trunks.” That was the day multi-million dollar Ocean Pacific Sunwear was formed.
When Harley-Davidson sales dropped in the mid 1980s, CEO Vaughn Beals required all senior managers to make cross-country trips on Harleys, go to biker rallies, and even socialize with the Hell’s Angels. Willie Davidson, grandson of the founder and VP of Styling, noticed almost every Harley had been modified and customized. He adopted the best ideas he saw and incorporated them into future designs: chopping the chassis, adding chrome, painting flames and sculpting gas tanks.
Robert Milch, founder of Igene Biotechnology, didn’t find his “real” product until he came to the unexpected understanding that he was selling the right product to the right customers for the wrong purpose. He had been fairly successful marketing converted whey to bakers as a substitute for nonfat dry milk. But his product, MacroMin, didn’t take off until bakers told him that they also “misused” it as a partial substitute for egg whites, at a fifth the cost.
Levi-Strauss noticed customers were shrinking their jeans to get a tighter fit and just the right length: Levi released preshrunk jeans. They noticed customer were taking their new jeans and driving cars over them, then dropping them into the washer and adding bleach: Levi released stone-washed, pre-faded jeans. They noticed kids were wearing ripped jeans: Levi released pre-ripped jeans.
Need some fresh ideas? Get out more.
Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.