Did you know it’s estimated that there are over 150 million utility poles in use in the United States today— nearly one utility pole for every two people? The bulk of them (at least 60 percent) have been standing where they are for over thirty years, having been installed during the massive build-out of suburbia that occurred in the decades following World War II.
Utility poles are everywhere – you pass them every day. But most people, at least the ones I know, don’t think about things like: How long has that pole been there? How long will it stay there? Where did it come from, and where is it going?
So, though the common wood utility pole may not be a topic of interest for many and may be forgotten or simply taken for granted, the job of the innovator is to think about the questions that others don’t ask, and hopefully develop solutions that answer them. It’s easy to get complacent with products, services, and processes that have always just been the way they are. However, those are the very concepts that need innovation and require those willing to consider, “what next?”
True Innovation Looks at The Entire Process
Thinking about any product—in this case, the utility pole—across its entire life cycle, from cradle to grave, opens up new opportunities for innovation at every point. Most industries refer to this as product life cycle thinking. In our instance, the “cradle” is the planting of the tree that ultimately grows into the pole. The “grave,” of course, is how the pole is disposed of once it has reached the end of its useful life span. It is here that we found the greatest potential for our innovation efforts, especially when it comes to disruptive innovations.
Like in lean principles, where one maps out a process in order to understand where to eliminate excess, companies that take a thorough look at their life cycle will inevitably find a multitude of opportunities for innovation – large and small. In our case, an incremental innovation might be something that impacts the performance of our existing pole product line—for instance, a new way to limit the growth of vegetation around poles or a pole design that better accommodates the growing need for mobile broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity in rural America. Both of these examples, incidentally, were real attempts to meet market needs that emerged from our innovation process.
In the end, innovative thinking is necessary for a company’s long-term health. Appreciate the innovators in your organization and give them the resources needed to help create ideas and concepts that will not only benefit your organization, but your customers, their customers, and the community at large. Learn more about fostering an environment of innovation by visiting my website.