Innovation has become a ubiquitous buzzword that organizations and their leaders sometimes seem to wield automatically and without clear meaning. Nevertheless, innovation is a crucial component for businesses looking not just to thrive in today’s marketplace but to simply survive.
“If you don’t innovate, you die,” said Saurav Agarwal, founder and CEO of MHI member SIERA.AI.
Establishing a company culture that nurtures innovation from all angles requires balancing groundbreaking ideas with steadfast business sense—incorporating and encouraging change while maintaining a solid base. Therefore, companies find themselves facing an eternal question: How can you encourage innovation and creativity while remaining solidly planted in your day-to-day operations?
For companies in the supply chain realm, the question has never been more vital.
“Supply chain operations are under intense pressure to adapt to complex challenges and changing needs—from the volumes and types of goods they’re handling to a tight labor market that makes it difficult to source and retain all the talent that they need to staff their facilities,” said Bruce Bleikamp, director of product management, distribution and fulfillment at MHI member MHS. “This rate of change and intensity of the challenges makes innovation all the more important—operations need more effective solutions for new and changing problems.”
Finding focus among the many meanings of innovation
Effectively, innovation is a concept whose definition will vary depending on where the conversation is taking place.
“Innovation means different things to different people,” Agarwal said. “Innovation to a startup means that you’re willing to throw away everything in search of the truth and to build something new. But for an established company, innovation might mean making incremental changes to make something better.”
Too often, innovation is associated only with new products and solutions that can be monetized for customer consumption, when it encompasses so much more, said Scott Summerville, president and CEO at MHI member Mitsubishi Electric Automation.
“Innovation can be a business process or an operational innovation in manufacturing and supply chain,” Summerville said. “This is particularly important in today’s business environment with severe labor shortages. Some of our best innovation comes from our manufacturing and logistics environment, which helps us reduce cost, improve efficiency and become more socially and environmentally responsible.”
“Innovation does not have to be only technology innovation,” Agarwal said. “I think tech entrepreneurs get too caught up in tech innovation and forget about business process innovation or business innovation. You can have a really innovative go-to market strategy or a really innovative supply chain process.”
Because innovation is such a widely referenced—and often misunderstood—concept, Mike Field, president and CEO of MHI member The Raymond Corporation, said it is critical to bring focus to it within an organization. At Raymond, he said that means focusing innovation around problem-solving and finding better solutions for customers.
“I think that’s an easy way to keep people looking forward,” Field said. “It’s important to have a vision of where you want to go and a mission—why you’re here—that is tied to some sort of planning cycle.”