By Alan G Robinson
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Additional info for Corporate creativity: how innovation and improvement actually happen
For corporate creativity, the real power is in the unexpected. A good example of the power of the unexpected occurred at Japan Railways (JR) East, the largest rail carrier in the world. This company never anticipated that constructing a new bullet-train line through the mountains north of Tokyo would lead it to a new and very profitable businessin beverages. The new train line required many tunnels. In the tunnel through Mount Tanigawa, water began to cause problems, and JR East engineers drew up plans to drain it away.
The worker inside the cab thought that with a simple extension-cord device attached to the windshield-wiper control arm, the worker outside the cab could activate the jets alone. With the help of the plant's continuous improvement department, he designed and built such a device and proved that it could be successfully used on the assembly line. In other words, the suggester proposed a way to eliminate his own job. The improvement was made, his job was eliminated, and he was reassigned to new work.
Early on, we learned the danger of relying on secondhand information. There is no shortage of advice available on ways to promote creativity in companies, but much of it seems to assume that people will suspend their critical faculties. It is hard to imagine how making chicken yells, rearranging the furniture, or expanding the cafeteria menu to include Thai food and tofu (as one recent book suggests) could have helped the JR East maintenance worker or the American Airlines flight attendant come up with their ideas.