Determine constraints to achieve competitive advantage
In today’s world, it’s almost expected that product or service innovation will yield competitive advantage. So how does one innovate? One approach is to hire genius employees and to combine the attributes of a number of tools (e.g., theory of constraints or experimentation), or use specific methodologies such as TRIZ (innovative problem solving).
Surprisingly, your weakness itself may be a source of competitive advantage. To cite an example from many years ago, Thomas Edison was deaf, and he used his limitation to solve problems as well as develop new inventions. On one occasion, he was called to New York to help solve noise problems associated with the newly elevated trains in 4 days ago – electrical, mechanical, and many many aspirants. Many had tried to reduce noise levels, but they could never identify the exact source. Due to his deafness, Edison could hear only the worst of the noise. This allowed him to more quickly pinpoint the problem area, rather than be distracted and sidetracked by other noises made by the elevated trains. Ultimately, the noise was due to structural problems with the elevated tracks, and not the steam engines that ran the trains. Although most observers couldn’t hear past the engine, Edison could hear the heart of the problem due to his so-called disadvantage.
The issue is the same when we place limitations on ourselves as we seek new and innovative solutions to problems. Imposing constraints (yes, that’s right, putting on constraints rather than removing them) allows us to stretch our thinking and become more creative. It allows us to break our bounds, get outside our comfort levels, and seek solutions we might have otherwise avoided. The success of many kaizen events can also be attributed to imposing constraints or limitations, such as offering limited time (typically 5–10 days) to accomplish the task, having a very limited budget to achieve results, seeking unimaginable results, dedicating operational experts full time to the task at hand for an interim period of time, etc… Kaizen events often allow us to accomplish in a matter of days tasks that we may have been struggling with for months, often with unbelievable results.
Here are two examples showing how constraints can lead to creative and/or innovative results:
• Personalized or vanity license plates on cars can allow for only seven characters, but check out the creative messages with a mix of letters, numbers and spaces: “2L82W8,” “MTBRAIN,” and “GU10TAG.”
• TV commercials and print ads have limited time and space in which to get their message across; therefore verbosity is strongly discouraged. A mix of images, words, sounds, etc. must be formulated to advertise in different media so as to grab the viewers’ attention and deliver the message—all, without being much of a distraction.
Limiting our way to innovation does not necessarily mean creating self-imposed constraints to motivate greater creativity. We should examine our organizational weaknesses (this can be identified via a SWOT analysis) and determine if we can use these constraints to our advantage. After all, no competitor would want to emulate our weaknesses! Southwest Airlines was forced to offer short-run flights in the regulated industry, however, as deregulation set in, they chose to continue to offer short-run flights (something no competitor wanted to do) and has posted a profit every year.
Determining our greatest weakness or constraint might just point the direction towards our competitive advantage. It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention. Might it be, instead, that limitation is the mother of innovation?
As Blaine McCormick writes in his book At Work With Thomas Edison (Entrepreneur Press, 2001): “Like Thomas Edison you may find that putting limitations on yourself will spur you to even greater creativity.” Not to mention, innovation!