In Japan’s industrial economy, some of the names are common. They are Toshiba, Canon, Honda, and Panasonic. They are also global innovation icons. However, all of them began the journey with tinkering. These tinkerers did not wait for purpose-built office space, winning prize money in idea competition, or defense-related R&D projects. Over the years, each of them has become a large multinational. The underpinning of success appears to be the endless desire for perfection. They are in a race to offer higher quality products at decreasing costs. They have succeeded to scale up tinkering passion of perfection into a scientific journey of discovery, invention, and innovation. Hence, in addition to commercial successes, each of them has occupied positions among the top 50 patent recipients in the US patent office. The uprising of Japan’s tinkerers to innovators offers great lessons for entering and establishing footprints in the idea economy.
Having a passion for perfection and linking it with scientific discoveries for scaling up the journey of making products better and cheaper is the key. However, many developing countries have a passion of craftsmanship. They have also expanded academic programs in science and engineering. Even upon setting up office space and high-tech parks, arranging idea competition, and offering seed money, they are yet to witness the beginning of such success stories. They have also been facilitating idea imports in the form of capital machinery, alluring foreign high-tech firms to establish the operation, and offering incentives for high-tech assembling. At best, they are succeeding in adding labor to develop the market of ideas created somewhere else. There is no indication that such steps are leading to creating the path of generating and trading ideas. Where is the disconnect? Where to focus on?
Toshiba began the journey with the tinkering passion of Tanaka Hisashige
Tanaka Hisashige was the son of a craftsman. Through apprenticeship, he grew as an artisan. With the skill of a craftsman, he kept tinkering to invent different techniques. One of the notable ones was the inkstone case with a secret lock. At the age of 14, in 1813, he invented a loom capable of weaving intricate designs into fabric. Like many other Japanese craftsmen, he also found interest in the karakuri doll. At the age of 20, he perfected many autonomous features of this doll with springs, pneumatics, and hydraulics. However, by the mid-1830s, the progression of Karakuri doll saturated, and it kept suffering from the erosion of creating a sensation as a humanoid robot doll.
Tanaka’s tinkering passion continued in replicating and perfecting many useful technological devices. The list includes Myriad Year Clock, steam- locomotive, and steam-warship. In 1873, he established Tanaka Engineering Works for producing telegraph equipment for the ministry of industry of Japan. This small workshop was the beginning of the formation of today’s Toshiba. Despite the starting of the journey through tinkering, Toshiba’s uprising is through scientific investigation in perfecting ideas and making them scalable.
A Camera Repairman Started Canon
Before completing secondary school education, Goro Yoshida became a camera repairman through apprenticeship. In 1932, German-made Leica Model II was an iconic product. This 420 yen camera was out of reach to most Japanese as the starting salary for a banker used to be 70 yen. Out of curiosity, Mr. Yoshida opened this camera. To his surprise, he found that there was no precious component like a diamond inside that highly expensive product. Instead, the parts were made from brass, aluminum, iron and rubber. Upon seeing the power of the idea of charging an exorbitant price for a product made of ordinary materials, he got intrigued to make a copy of it. Through craftsmanship skills, he succeeded in making each of those parts. Upon assembling them, he succeeded in imitating Leica Model II. He named it as Kwanon.
Due to very low-cost labor, Goro Yoshida found it profitable to manufacture the replicated version. Subsequently, with his brother-in-law, Saburo Uchida, and Takeo Maeda, Yoshida established the Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory in November 1933. It was a room of a three-story apartment in Tokyo, which became Canon later. Instead of selling the same imitated Leica camera, this newly formed company paid attention to incremental innovations, leading to successive better versions. Over the decades, it grew up as a globally reputed Camera brand. With its precision optics capability, Canon also entered into other products, including semiconductor processing equipment.
From imitator to innovation leader– a start in the journey of the uprising of Japan’s tinkerers to innovators
More importantly, while Kodak suffered disruption due to the emergence of the digital camera, Canon not only survived. It also became the dominant supplier of the high-resolution image sensor. Over the decades, Canon has established a strong foothold in advancing technologies. In addition to incremental innovation, Canon also showed remarkable performance in fueling creative waves of destruction around the new technology cores. For example, Canon pursued all the way to nurture disruptive technologies like inkjet and laser printing. These two technologies have caused creative weave of destruction in both computer printing and photocopying industries. As opposed to imitation, Canon is now of innovation forerunner. In the US patent office, Canon has been among the top 10 patent recipients for years. Furthermore, Cannon is also a leader in pursuing disruptive innovation.
In doing so they need a flow of ideas. Hence, they have been feeding the passion of perfection, and scientific knowledge to creative minds. In the absence of passion of perfection, the flow of knowledge alone cannot empower any mind to produce ideas. Therefore, the increase of funding for R&D and Education leading to publications is not sufficient condition for creating the flow of ideas. As a matter of fact, the culture of the passion for perfection, craftsmanship, and habit of tinkering is often an essential ingredient of producing ideas from the knowledge flow and human capital. Therefore, it could be stated that the production of ideas is a function of the passion for perfection, and the flow of knowledge.
Honda’s humble beginning as a tinkerer—a key example of the uprising of Japan’s tinkerers to innovators
Soichiro Honda was a mechanic working at the Art Shokai garage. As opposed to going for traditional education, he spent his early childhood helping his father, Gihei Honda. His father was a blacksmith with his bicycle repair business. After venturing into supplying parts to Toyota, in 1946, Soichiro Honda founded Honda Technical Research Institute in October 1946. It was 170 square feet shack hosting 12 men working. They started attaching a two-stroke 50 cc radio generator engine with a bicycle, making it motorized. After running over the supply of 500 engines, Tohatsu war surplus, they started to produce them. His background in helping his father in blacksmith work was highly useful for foundry works for producing parts of the engine.
This humble journey led to the integration of engine and bicycle together, giving birth to a motorcycle. In 1949, Honda released the first complete motorcycle, with both the frame and engine made by Honda. To scale up the success of his competence working as a motor mechanic and blacksmith, Honda hired an Engineer and a business professional. These two individuals played a vital role. Kihachiro Kawashima brought engineering to fine-tune and scale-up Honda’s tinkering skill.
Takeo Fujisawa developed the marketing, sales, and distribution network for Honda’s products. By 1964, Honda became the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles. In the meantime, Honda also released its first automobile, a mini pick-up truck in August 1963. The rest is history. Honda is now a technology-rich company. It has been maintaining its position among the global top 10 patent recipients in robotics. Hence, Honda has been a remarkable example in the uprising of Japan’s tinkerers to innovators.
Panasonic—from an electric socket maker to household appliance innovator
Kōnosuke Matsushita was born in 1894. Shortly after Matsushita left school, he went to Osaka to become an apprentice. At the age of 22, he worked as an electrical inspector with the Osaka Electric Light Company, an electrical utility company. Matsushita had a passion for redesigning electrical products making them more suitable to serve the purpose. Once, he introduced an improved light socket that he had perfected in his spare time to his boss. However, he was not enthusiastic.
To pursue his passion of redesigning and producing improved versions of electrical fixtures, in 1917, Matsushita left Osaka Electric Light Company to set up his own company. He started Matsushita Electric Housewares Manufacturing Works at the basement of his tenement. Although he did not have capital, a formal education, or experience in manufacturing, but he had the passion of perfection. With his wife, brother-in-law, and several assistants, he began creating several samples of his product. However, he failed to draw the wholesaler’s interest in the samples of the first product, fan insulator plates.
Despite the initial disappointment, Matsushita was convinced that there was a huge untapped market for convenient, high-quality household electrical fixtures. He concentrated in refining the designs, often staying later at night. Ultimately, he succeeded with the refinement of designs of two new products-an attachment plug and a two-way socket. Consumers found them of higher quality than other products. More importantly, they were 30% to 50% cheaper. Subsequently, the production accelerated raising employees from three to 20 by the end of 1918.
Turning tinkering passion for scalable innovation is the key for the uprising of Japan’s tinkerers to innovators
The uprising of these five large multinationals from tinkerers to innovation powerhouse offers many lessons to us. All of them started the journey from the passion of perfection with the support of craftsmanship skills. Furthermore, they focused on imitation or redesign as opposed to the radical invention. Instead of attaining that competence from formal education, they got them from apprenticeship and family background. Of course, they started the journey by capitalizing on that competence. But their tinkering based imitations and redesign were not scalable.
Instead of keep producing initial versions or keeping imitating, they rapidly focused on their own science-based R&D capability. Subsequently, they succeeded in generating their own ideas of making those products increasingly better. Eventually, they made those products better than from whom they imitated. Moreover, they also took the scope advantage to expand the breadth. In addition to incremental innovations, all of them are also showing remarkable performance in pursuing new technology core to cause a creative wave of destruction.
As opposed to following such a path, many aspiring developing countries are attempting to follow other options, which are perceived to be easier. Although those easer options like FDI, export-oriented manufacturing, or VC funded startups are initially giving hope, there has been no success story yet. For example, Malaysia’s labor centric high-tech manufacturing has not led to developing an innovation powerhouse. Furthermore, the Malaysian Government’s billions of dollar investment in developing multimedia super corridor has ended up in dissatisfaction. In the contrary, these Japanese examples from imitation to the creative waves of destruction are highly feasible options to follow.