Steven's Blog


Exploit Your Unseen Innovations

As I boarded a Japan Airlines international first class not long ago, a cabin attendant at the entrance to the aircraft greeted me in Japanese with, “Dr. Bleistein! We’ve been expecting you!” rather than the typical, “Welcome aboard, sir!” in English. Not only did she know my name, but also presumed correctly that I speak Japanese, when typically the presumption would be that I don’t.

After the flight leveled off, I got out of my seat an approached her to ask how she knew my name when I boarded, and that I speak Japanese. Flustered at first, she apologized and asked if she had offended me. To the contrary, she had not. I was impressed and was curious about how she knew.

This flight attendant explained that she Googles all first class passengers on the manifest ahead of time, and in her experience, most first class passengers get a lot of hits. She endeavors to know something about each of the passengers for when she interacts with us. She knew about my business, had read one or two of my articles, had watched one of my interviews on Bloomberg News, and had watched at least one of the videos in which I speak Japanese, which is why she knew she could use Japanese with me.

I asked her if this is a new practice at Japan airlines. She told me it is not. She is the only one who does this. It is entirely her innovation, and an excellent one. Good customer service is the realm of good employees. Building relationships however is the realm of great ones.

It does not surprise me that the innovation came from her rather than Japan Airlines management. Frontline and junior staff are the most common source of a company’s innovation—not an R&D department and not some executive offsite in a swank location. Yet many innovations at the depths of an organization, like hers, remain unexploited and are among the best kept secrets in the business. To this day, Japan Airlines management has no idea about the practice of this one first class cabin attendant, and I have never experienced the same from any other on all my subsequent flights on Japan Airlines. (I have published this experience previously, and even related it to a senior executive at Japan Airlines, who was gratified to hear about it. I don’t know if it went further beyond him.)

Just to be clear, what I mean by innovation is a deliberate change that takes the business to a higher level of performance in a sustainable way. Innovation is different from problem-solving, which merely restores performance to a previously attained level after something has caused performance to drop. Innovation enhances capability. Problem-solving is remedial.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to change how people work. Some of these changes merely solve problems of the pandemic—like working from home—to at least try to restore business performance to where it had been when everyone could work in an office. As people return to the office, the changes will likely lose relevance. Yet some changes forced by the crisis are innovations, and have brought about enhanced ways business work with customers and suppliers, novel methods for attracting new business, new kinds of products and services to offer, and reimagined business models the company will pursue, to name a few. These innovations persist beyond the crisis that spawned them, and the business will be well-served to retain them.

If you lead a business, as we emerge from the pandemic, make sure you are aware of the innovations in your business, and be prepared to exploit them—particularly the innovations on the frontlines—no matter how small you think such innovations might be.

If you lead a business, as we emerge from the pandemic, make sure you are aware of the innovations in your business, and be prepared to exploit them. Click To Tweet

After all, if you can improve performance by even two percent every day, in seven week, you’ll be twice as good! And who doesn’t want that?

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