We’ve all heard before—don’t reinvent the wheel. The phrase speaks to the waste of time and resources it would take to reinvent something that’s already been discovered. Instead, those resources could be used to transform the use of the wheel to create new ideas, processes, products and/or services.
The same could be said for the utility pole industry in which Cox Industries operates. Cox is a family-owned business, founded in the 1950s by brothers W.B. and E.J. Cox, that manufactures and distributes treated wood products ranging from lumber for residential buildings to poles for purchase and use by utilities. W.B. Cox—Bill Sr., grandfather of current Cox CEO Mikee Johnson—was driven from the beginning to keep coming up with new ways of making his company more efficient and profitable.
Cox wouldn’t find innovation in trying to create a different/new utility pole, instead it found innovation in the processes surrounding that utility pole.
Finding Innovation Elsewhere
At first blush you’d probably assume there wouldn’t be a whole lot of innovation happening in the utility pole industry—Cox changed that. In the commodity market we operate in, looking at things from the perspective of the customer—utilities in particular—made it clear that product-based innovations (i.e., making a new and better utility pole) were not going to add value for us; in cases like that, innovators have to turn to ancillary services based on their product, expanding their business model to include a service component.
In our case, this meant creating new businesses under the Cox umbrella. Our first development actually grew out of our exploration of the value of using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology—a method for tracking items, similar to bar codes—to tag and track the poles we manufactured.
No one else in our industry was using RFID at the time. We started by implementing RFID in our own plants for internal inventory purposes, but we soon realized that this same technology would also allow utilities to better track, inspect, and maintain the poles once they were put up in their service areas. This led us to form a software company, Sustainable Management Systems (SMS), that essentially sells the capability for utilities to more quickly and accurately maintain their inventory of poles in use. Rather than reinventing the utility pole, SMS just attaches a service that provides added value for our utility customers by allowing them to move away from traditional paper-and-pencil inspection of poles.
It wasn’t the utility pole—our main product—that required the innovation; instead it was the experience and processes that surrounded our product where we found ways to innovate that transformed the industry. The same approach could be the key to innovation for your company; look beyond the obvious and see what can be improved.
Learn how to successfully integrate innovation into your company and industry by contacting me!