All companies want innovation for their products, services, safety, and internal cost reductions. The results of innovation are products that perform better, products that have a lower cost of production, a lower failure rate, and create significantly higher customer satisfaction. Apple’s iPhone design, the Toyota Prius, and even the Snuggie blanket are all examples of major corporate innovations to create new, breakthrough and unique products that their customers loved.
A company can usually only have a handful of truly major breakthrough ideas each year. Major innovations are usually limited so an organization can truly focus on designing, manufacturing, delivering, and marketing the new break through ideas each year. However, the largest quantity of business innovation takes place in small, silent, and seemingly unimportant ways where employees take the lead to make products and services better. An employee determining how to use a low energy light bulb across hundreds of locations can save a company hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. A new iPhone? No? But the savings to the bottom line have just as much impact.
The U.S. Military has for decades been a silent pool of incredible, front-line innovation as they made old equipment better or made seemingly small modifications that created a big impact to the soldiers on the front line. For business leaders, these styles of innovation can be copied, followed, and brought to your own organizations. The ultimate objective of innovation, either a brand new product or a small adjustment, is to make products better, create a higher quality, deliver items at lower cost, and deliver an even better customer experience.
Military Style Innovation Example #1 – The Navajo Code Talkers.
Innovation Category: Use Existing Employees To Do Something Amazing.
We all have employee’s that have other skill sets that we may or may not recognize. Sometimes, these unharnessed skill sets could have a tremendous value for our business. During World War II, US Marines fought the famous “island hoping” campaign, landing on heavily fortified island beaches, to slowly defeat the dug-in Japanese defenders. For the Marines survival, they depended on sea, land, and air based fire support (mortars, artillery, and bombs) to help them defeat the Japanese defenders.
What was critical to their success was a way where the Marines could pass accurate coordinates and instructions for the fire support assets that were miles away. A communication process that did not require lengthy coding, deciphering, or that would not be understood by the Japanese were absolute prerequisites for success. In an incredible spirit of innovation, US Marines (and some US Army units), brought in native speaking Navajo American Indians to become the critical “voice” for effective fire support. The “Navajo Code Talkers” could easily converse accurately in their native language, conduct conversations quickly, and be completely undecipherable by the Japanese. The “Navajo Code Talkers” were a perfect solution to a pressing military problem of secure, accurate, and immediate fire support.
Military Style Innovation Example #2 – Kevlar Helmet Retention Systems
Innovation Category: Low Cost, Immediate Way to Have High Impact to Customer Experience
Take any picture from the US Military and you instantly recognize the classic “chin strap” on helmets. From World War I up until the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the technology and fabric used to secure the helmet to your head still relied on the same technology that was easily over ninety years old.
Just because a process or a technology is old does not mean that it is ineffective or that it should be discarded. The chin strap alone was never a good way to secure a protective helmet to your head even though it had been in use almost for a century. The chin strap was very uncomfortable and despite how tight you got it, you usually just succeeded in pulling the helmet over your eyes and the helmet could still easily rock back and forth on your head. It appeared the chin strap was as good as it was ever going to get for the US Military.
Flash forward to around 2005 and the US Military slowly introduced a new four (4) point system to secure the helmet to your head. The new four point system was more effective, very low cost, and made the helmet much more comfortable and easier to wear.
The change for the US Military from the chin strap to the four point retention system came after it started really listening and looking for changes from the front-line wearers of the helmet. When you wearing something that is 3-4 pounds on your head all day, every day, for months at a time, you begin to think of new ways to make it better and more effective. When it comes to Innovation, most people always jump to the idea that it has to be a break through. In fact, most innovation is incremental. When organizations focus on finding and implementing low cost, effective, and incremental innovations like the changes in the helmet retention system, there are thousands of ideas to be tested and implemented.
Military Style Innovation Example #3 – C-Ration Can on M60 Machine Gun.
Innovation Category: Immediate, Low Cost Way to Make an Existing Tool Work Better
Machine guns are one of the most important tools to any military organization. Machine guns allow a military force to establish a base of suppressive fire so another military force could maneuver on the enemy to attack their position. During the Vietnam War, the jungle fighting required a machine gun that had a large caliber round, good reliability, and could still be carried by a single person. The M60 Machine Gun largely fit that need.
One of the early problems that the M60 developed was a frequent jamming of bullets as they entered the machine gun. The dust, dirt, and other debris found in the jungles of Vietnam often prevented the M60 from being as effective as it could. The solution was found in the ingenuity of the Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors fighting in Vietnam. Very quickly, military personnel discovered that they could attach a C-Ration or another soup style can to the side of the M60 that would allow it to “feed” bullets into the machine gun in a much better manner than it was designed. This $.05 solution was incredibly effective to make the M60 Machine Gun operate effectively.
Later on, the M60 Machine gun was modified to incorporate an improved feed tray and other modifications to make the C-Ration can innovation no longer necessary.
When military personnel innovate an improvement to solve or reduce the effects of a problem, it is often termed “field expedient.” The field expedient repairs are a hallmark of all services, military occupations, and conflict periods that have delivered amazing results.
The advice for your organization is simple: look and promote innovation everywhere. Keep trying to find and deliver those great, breakthrough innovation ideas that will transform your company and your industry. More importantly, find ways to encourage, capture, and quickly implement all those small, low cost, and highly effective innovation that make products, services, costs, and customer experience so much better on the commercial “front lines.” Follow these military examples to help bring greater innovation and results to your organization.
Chad is the author of two books: (1) Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and (2) Battlefield to Business Success. Chad’s brand message is that organizations & individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business because they immediately produce results and are cost effective. Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces officer with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is also an adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at Creighton University and Bellevue University in Omaha, NE. In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics. He has been published in over 80 publications including The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.