Case Study: Choosing the Right Innovation to Pursue

Case Study: Choosing the Right Innovation to Pursue

Choosing the Right Innovation to Pursue: Most people don’t think much about the life of a utility pole or what happens to it when its life has concluded. For utilities, the end of a pole’s life simply meant hauling it off to be disposed. In recent years however, the industry has been forced to address the increasingly problematic factors associated with traditional disposal methods.

At the time of our innovation process (to provide alternative disposal), landfill costs were going up, all while state legislatures were handing down new rules about how to handle waste. The utilities were clearly feeling the pressure to find a more sustainable model for disposing of poles, but the options just weren’t there; it was clearly an area that called for reform, and no one else was really working on it.

As I discuss in a separate post, we heard the market speak and responded with a solution that our business could reasonably provide; it’s what led to offering a service that recovered and disposed of old poles, reels, pallets, and pretty much any other wood-related waste.

The development of this service exemplifies the possible outcomes of the type of focused innovation program we had set out to implement. Compared to the other areas of innovation that resulted from strategic planning sessions, this initiative would allow us to leverage the resources and processes we already had in place – which meant we wouldn’t be required to make enormous changes in how we conducted business, at least initially. Logistically speaking, disposal was a natural area for us to move into, because we knew we could take control of it and have an impact, whereas the other areas of innovation further upstream in the product life cycle were further outside our domain of capability.

For example, we had the trucking assets already in place that could pick up used poles and dispose of them. The thinking was basically this: “Well, we already make the poles, transport them, and drop them off; why don’t we just pick up any used poles while we’re already in the field and figure out the best thing to do with them, so that the utility doesn’t have to?”

Rather than taking a drastic leap into a totally new area, choosing an innovation that would work in tandem with our basic business model as it already existed, and with the services we were already offering would create greater success more quickly.

Take this same approach with your business; take an in-depth look into your life cycle and determine areas that can be improved, maximized or even transformed leveraging the infrastructure you already have in place. Doing so can provide value to you and your customer.  Learn more by visiting,


When in Doubt… Repurpose: A Motto for the Circular Economy

Utilities want to reduce waste; the EPA wants to reduce landfill usage; and everyone wants to find an environmentally friendly way of disposing of this treated wood waste. That is where a shift in look at this product’s “end of life” needs to occur. What if the utility pole’s life didn’t need to end per se, just be repurposed into something else?

This mindset is in part what drove our desire to provide an alternative “disposal” option for utilities. Our message was not to say, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll load that stuff into a dumpster and drive it to the landfill for you.” Our first focus was on finding things to do with the material besides just putting it in a landfill – to repurpose it.

Shifting from Linear to Circular

Most business models are linear – that’s what has traditionally been done in many industries including the utility pole business. The problem with that approach is current disposal methods (which come at the end of a linear business model), lead to significant costs (financial or environmental) and obstacles to implementation. From a life cycle perspective for utility poles, we keep running into a wall at the end of the process, which moves from development of the raw material (tree growth), manufacture (cutting and treatment), use, and finally disposal. You grow the tree, you harvest the tree, you manufacture it, it goes up in service, and then ultimately it gets disposed of one way or another. It’s that last step, the end of the line, that has historically presented difficulties.

I’m sure that is the case in many industries; if the ability to repurpose were easy, it’s likely we’d all be doing it. However, just because it is not currently easy, doesn’t mean creating a circular business model isn’t possible or worth it.

Don’t Waste “Waste”

Choosing to not shift to a circular life cycle is leaving assets on the table. If we view the product life cycle as a stream flowing from design, through production and use, to disposal, the intervention of the circular economy is to divert the stream at the point of disposal and cycle back to a point upstream. In other words, rather than just treating the remaining raw material at the end of the process as waste to be gotten rid of, companies have the opportunity to innovate by closing the loop and turning that material into input at an earlier phase of the process.

By seeking to repurpose and transform your linear business model into a circular one, you can not only make a positive impact on the environment, but on your business’s bottom line. 

Barry speaking on stage

The Environmental Impact of Your Product Life Cycle (and How to Reduce It)

Each passing year, industries – including the utility and commodity markets – are increasingly more aware of the impact their companies have on the environment.  It’s a concern that stakeholders in these industries recognize as a duty to address for the sake of consumers and the environment.

Understanding what that impact is and how to potentially reduce it won’t be clear until you comprehensively consider your product’s entire lifecycle from cradle to grave.  That may provoke you to consider the materials used to manufacturing or provide your product/service.  Could you potentially use more environmentally friendly materials?  If so, what would be the new impact of those materials?

However, what may initially seem like an improved concept may not necessarily reduce the overall environmental impact.  For example, many have questioned the use of other materials for utility poles – the idea being that perhaps other resources such as concrete or steel could outlast wood and therefore be more environmentally friendly. In theory these ideas seem credible.  However, from the view point of sustainability and carbon footprint, the more responsible material is still wood.

It comes back to understanding this particular product’s entire life cycle.  Studies* have been done and have found that treated wood compares favorably against galvanized steel, concrete, and fiber-reinforced composite poles along several environmental metrics, including greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel use, ecological toxicity, and water use.

The main reason why?  Forest products are organic raw material. Part of the production of this material involves thirty years of wood growth in the form of a tree.  This growth process actually removes carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, rather than contributing to carbon emissions—a remarkable side effect of using this organic raw material. The so-called “carbon sequestration” process generates a “carbon credit” early in the life cycle that allows the final product to have a much lower carbon footprint than competing products.  During the 40 years a pole stands, another tree will have grown in its place – canceling out the carbon release from the retirement of the pole.

Being aware of the details – large and small – of your product’s life cycle will allow you to identify where you can reduce your impact on the environment and where you are making the best choice given the options available.  Learn more about how to reduce your company’s environmental impact through innovation by visiting this site.



*Christopher A. Bolin and Stephen T. Smith, “Life cycle assessment of pentachlorophenol-treated wooden utility poles with comparisons to steel and concrete”

Life Cycle

The Life Cycle of a Utility Pole

Before you can understand the significance of innovation within the utility pole industry, it’s important to better dissect the true-life cycle of a pole, from initial planting of the tree, through manufacturing, and then ultimately to disposal. In this way, we can determine whether an innovation that is designed to have an impact on one part of the life cycle might also have a positive effect on others.

  • Harvesting of Trees – Generally speaking, the most common tree species used for poles in this country are southern yellow pine and Douglas fir trees. A designated group of foresters works with private landowners who grow and harvest the wood for manufacturing purposes.  Together with farmers there is a collaborative effort to purchase, plant, maintain and manage the land.  The utility pole industry will typically leverage the “last cut” or the oldest trees.  Depending on the need from different utilities, a specific kind of tree size – or “pole” class – will be determined and selected.


  • Manufacturing of Poles – The trees we have cut are taken to a peeling plant, where the bark is stripped off and the diameter of the tree is further shaped and smoothed prior to being treated. The poles are then taken to a treatment facility, where they are placed on a rail tram-like device and rolled into a giant tube called a treatment cylinder. The cylinder is filled with a chosen chemical preservative, and a liquid (water or diesel fuel) is added that helps to serve as a “carrier” for the preservative as it impregnates the wood. Through a vacuum pressure treatment process, the poles soak up the liquid, and the chemical preservative with it. The poles are then removed from the tube, the chemical is pumped into a storage facility for safe handling, and the poles are then either air or kiln dried.


  • Final Preparations – the poles are moved to what’s termed a “framing yard,” where workers drill holes into the poles at specified locations to allow the utility to fit cross arms onto the pole. These cross arms serve an important role, allowing for power lines to be successfully strung from pole to pole.


  • Delivery and Use – The final output of this process is a pole that can be sold to a utility and put to use in the field. Just how long the pole will last in the field depends on multiple factors, including which preservative it has been treated with and the climate it will be subjected to.


  • Disposal – This is the step where recent innovation has occurred. Whether due to a pole reaching the end of the roughly forty years that it can function or due to its being removed to make way for something like a widening road, utilities need to get rid of the pole in some way. Traditionally this has meant disposal via landfills. The carbon found within these poles, however, could be used to generate energy after the end of the pole’s life as a utility pole—providing opportunities to eliminate waste and transform the pole even further.

Understanding the life-cycle of the utility pole helped expose an area of the process that provided no real value to stakeholders.  It’s what led a group of innovators to contemplate the following: how do we generate environmental value downstream in the process, at the time of disposal, when traditional approaches offer zero value for everyone involved?

When was the last time you carefully considered your product’s lifecycle with the lens of value-creation throughout the entire process?  Doing so will likely provide several feasible ideas for innovation and improvement that will benefit your stakeholders.  Learn more about finding the right approach to innovation for your organization here.


Top 5 Obstacles to Innovation

“Innovation” is more than just a business buzzword—it’s an initiative companies make a priority when wanting to increase profitability or meet changing market demands. It’s what successful businesses consistently seek to achieve. However, successfully innovating is easier said than done.

There are a number of obstacles that get in the way of a company being successfully innovative. The following are five in particular that become obstacles to innovation:

  1. A company culture that resists change. The workforce needs to be ready and willing to engage in and accept changes in the business. When your culture and workforce aren’t supportive, you don’t have the very individuals needed to make those changes a realty. While strategic decisions are left to the “decision-makers” of the organization, communication of innovation as well as the “why” attached to these ideas will be crucial in getting the enthusiastic buy-in of your workforce.
  2. Leadership that does not support change. Company leaders need to be willing to invest in and support innovation from a budgetary, resource, and timeline standpoint. It can be difficult and seemingly risky as a decision-maker to adjust the status-quo and support change. There’s a lot potentially riding on the line for these individuals. Regardless of resistance, a consistent dialogue of how and why change is important will be necessary.
  3. Lack of resources to implement innovation wisely. Companies need to strategically mobilize staff and resources in enacting an innovation process. Successful innovation takes more than a fantastic idea or concept, it takes effective execution of those ideas, which takes time, talent, and monetary resources.
  4. Lack of awareness of customer needs. Especially in commodity markets, companies must deeply understand the needs of their customers, who may not be looking for product-based innovation. Doing the research necessary to truly understand your market may force you to potentially adjust your existing priorities and processes.
  5. Lack of strategic thinking about innovation. Companies need to avoid implementing one-off or random innovations; instead, they should make sure their innovation program connects with their overall business strategy. This requires having a secure business strategy, one that is revisited often—which can sometimes be difficult for companies to successfully maintain.

When you put all of these factors together, you get a fairly complex challenge to innovation efforts on the part of a company. These obstacles are common roadblocks for many companies. However, they can be overcome. In my next post I’ll present four ways to successfully innovate. In the meantime, learn more about how to integrate more innovation within your company’s culture by visiting,