If you think the greatest threat to your company's future is outmoded technology or global competition, think again. As powerful as all of those forces can be, they're matched by an insidious threat much less talked about. Close-minded thinking is the factor that can ultimately suck your business dry.
Whether you're a manager or an employee, there are a few telling signs to look for. How much of your time is spent in the office, and how much is spent visiting customers? How often do you don work boots and safety glasses so you can get close to the manufacturing process? If you're reading this from the comfort of a cozy office, give yourself a minus-one.
What new product might you develop if you knew more about metals and their characteristics? What spark might emerge if you actually watched every step of your customer's manufacturing process? What is the thing that's most on your customer's mind?
Don't expect a customer to tell you what he needs—that's the wrong approach. Try to see what the customer needs, through the customer's eyes. When you do that, you find the things that should be enhanced, or what your product lacks, or where you haven't done things as they should be done. Ask about his problems and the obstacles he faces.
I got the inspiration for one new technology that I believe will take my company into the next decades when I visited a customer's site. I learned from my customer that his operation could make its sheet metal doors faster than they could install locks and hinges on them. As head of a company whose business is locks and hinges, I seized upon that as a challenge, and set out to design a way to reduce installation time from between 5 and 10 min, to 1 min.
Problems aren't the only thing to look for when visiting a plant. Look at what your customer does now, and note the advantages and disadvantages. Then try to top it.
Too many engineers today design by theory instead of from a comprehensive understanding. Spend a week in the machine shop of your vendors, or in your company's own shop if you're fortunate enough to have one. Take a hands-on class that puts you in touch with materials and their properties, or one that focuses on mechanical processes you're not familiar with.
I've found my background as a toolmaker invaluable toward designing effectively for my customers. It enables me to understand intuitively how a material will behave in certain circumstances, or what tolerances might be needed.
New product history is full of inventions that were discovered, at least in part, by accident. They include Teflon, vulcanized rubber, and even Post-It notes.
If you're a manager, listen up. None of the approaches above will boost your company's creativity if you squelch new ideas. Don't just encourage creativity—make it known that it's an integral part of the job for your people. Reward innovation. But also comb every failed attempt for lessons that can be learned. And praise the creative effort itself.
Opening your mind to new ideas won't necessarily solve the problems of global competition or outmoded technology. But it can strengthen your company's response to any problem that awaits.
Dieter Ramsauer, founder of DIRAK, holds more than 150 patents.