05 6 / 2012
As I previously admit that I’m not a diary-type kind of person, so my procrastination in writing this journal, sadly, clearly speak for itself. Not only was I unable to manipulate the entry date (^_^), but waiting for so long made events started to blur as time went by. Fortunately for me, I’m one of those compulsive photo-taker that has the tendency to document everything. So in case my memory failed me all I had to do just look up my photo album and…
Day three @BerlinSchool was packed with lecture on Innovation Management delivered by Saburo Kobayashi, former Executive Chief Engineer of Honda.
Intriguingly the session was subtext as concept-oriented innovation, and being a skeptic that I am, I couldn’t help but asked what does it even mean? Why did Honda innovate? Just because they could? Or did they innovate for innovation sake? Did they ever consider what does the consumer think of their innovation? Does the customer understand innovation? Do they respect or even care about the journey behind it? Sometimes, in the headlong rush to innovate, do companies realize that they might lose sight of the people they were innovating for?
To start, Kobayashi was not your typical Japanese. He was rather vibrant and freely outspoken — although toward the QA session he was rather dismissive when asked on where Honda stand against their competitor like Toyota or Nissan.
It was interesting to learn the journey behind Honda innovation, which mostly driven by the belief that essence trumps above all else. By neglecting superficial data or analysis, Honda actually manage to lead and foster a concept-oriented team resulting in a company with high tolerance for failure. Being comfortable with failure is the ultimate drive in any innovation. Try and try again. Iteration is key.
Although none can accurately predict the future, Honda did pretty well in anticipating it simply by keenly observing what the consumer might need. The obvious result of this exercise was the invention of airbag. Honda, was in fact, the pioneer in this technology even if they don’t hold the patent thanks to the neglect of their legal department.
The exercise that led to Honda key success in innovation is famously coined as Y-Gaya (ワイガヤ), which is loosely translated as ‘creative brainstorming’ session. Everyone is allowed freedom of speech to air their ideas which usually followed by hot arguments on the merit of each one of them before ‘the’ idea emerges.
The Y-Gaya concept itself is probably not new but Honda did cultivate them by having relatively flat organization (up to certain level), and applying open office culture.
There is no president’s office at Honda, and no separate offices for directors. There is simply a Directors’ Room—a big room with desks for each of the representative directors, plus large tables around which directors gather to discuss management issues, sometimes inviting associates to join them. The Big Boardroom concept was introduced in 1964 by one of the men who created Honda: Vice President Takeo Fujisawa. Mr. Fujisawa believed that to create new value the company needed more than what individuals working in isolation could provide. Honda needed to create an environment in which its leaders could freely exchange ideas, synergistically forming a powerful leadership team. By working face to face every day, the directors formed stronger bonds of trust, sharing information and affirming opinions. It is this spirit of egalitarianism that keeps Honda strong, fueling their innovation spirit for the future.
This definitely a spirit that I could resonate and loves to foster in my own team. Many company executives, once they reach certain level in the organization, felt the need to be recognized but most of them did it by alienating (distancing) themselves from the team. Corner office is great, but how is this going to cultivate Y-Gaya culture? Putting physical barrier between you and your team certainly won’t help nurturing free flow of ideas.
One firm I know that religiously follow Y-Gaya concept is Pixar. In presenting new ideas or concept for their next film, everyone (regardless of rank or title) was invited to pitch and critique each other’s ideas. I am absolutely onboard with this approach especially since I believe that everyone is a creative person in their own way.
I never buy the bullshit of exclusively calling designers or artists as creative team. This is a term heavily coined by ad agencies. Are they saying that the engineers aren’t creative? Excuse me, who led the innovation at Apple? Last time I check, Steve Jobs was neither a designer nor an artist. Pixar’s Ed Catmull is a 3D Engineer, not designer. Yet both were the key drivers behind every innovation in their respective company.
Going back to Honda, with their exceptional track record in the past six decades, one couldn’t help but wonder where is Honda now? Where does Honda stand against other companies in term of innovation? When was the last time they innovate? And why don’t I see Honda listed as most innovative companies in the past five years? What went wrong?