Often time, we think that a Breakthrough idea is at the core of creating big bang in Innovation. But at the root of remarkable success is Incremental innovation—consistent step-by-step progression over decades. In retrospect, invariably, all innovations creating big bang successes emerged in primitive form. Through incremental innovations, they proceed to grow as great examples of innovation successes. Some of the incremental innovation examples are word processing software, toasters, and washing
machines. Let’s take a look into the 10 incremental innovation examples—creating big bang successes.
10 Incremental Innovation Examples:
In 1886, the Automobile emerged as a three-wheeler, fitted with a small internal combustion engine. The uniqueness was that the internal combustion engine took the role of a horse to provide energy to rotate the wheels. Despite its immense latent potential, in comparison to today’s automobiles, this great innovation was primitive. Hence, German automakers struggled to find customers, leading to the sale of just 900 cars in 1899.
The enormous success of automobiles has been due to incremental advancement. Since its birth, innovators have been systematically generating a Flow of Ideas in making automobiles faster, safer, more comfortable, and better looking. Hence, they focused on empathy to get to know customers’ pains and advancing technologies for generating ideas to address them. As opposed to randomly producing ideas, innovators pursued a systematic approach to creating a flow of ideas for consistently serving customers’ purposes better, and also at less cost. As a result, the market kept expanding producing increasing revenue and profit for the producers.
A young engineer Steve Sasson 1975 innovated a digital camera while working at Kodak. A bulky camera took almost a minute to capture and store a poor-quality 10,000-pixel image on a cassette tape. Furthermore, you needed to connect the camera to the television to view the captured image. Certainly, it was a cumbersome, poor quality, and costly alternative to a film camera, capturing images having more than 2 million pixels. Due to such a reality, Kodak management decided not to pursue the commercialization of this innovation.
But the underlying technology core, the electronic image sensor, was amenable to progression. Particularly, the development of semiconductor technology contributed to its rapid incremental advancement. As a result, electronic image sensors started gaining pixel density, resolution, and contrast. Furthermore, the noise level started to fall as well. In addition to the image sensor, innovators also focused on incremental advancement of lens, battery, and software. As a result, due to incremental progression, once highly poor digital camera has become a great member of incremental innovation examples.
In 1957, hard disk innovation emerged as 5MB magnetic storage weighing 1 ton. The disk comprising of 24-inch platters (rotating magnetic disks) used to occupy 16 square feet floor space. This IBM RAMAC needed 600ms access time for writing data at 2,000 bits per square inch. There was only a handful of customers of this expensive, primitive innovation. But its innovation power kept unfolding due to incremental innovation, through a flow of ideas. Consistently, innovators kept coming up with ideas for increasing bit density and reducing access time. As a result, hard disks started storing an increasing amount of data at a decreasing cost. Consequentially, in 2013, Toshiba’s 13-terabyte hard disk could be held on a palm. Hence, the hard disk has been a great example of incremental innovation examples.
Like many other great innovations, airplanes also emerged as a primitive device. In the 1910s, this machine was not of much use. Through a series of incremental innovations over almost more than a decade, it qualified to carry parcels. On May 05, 1918, the US postal department began airmail service between New York and Washington, D.C., via Philadelphia. It took two more decades of incremental innovation to start offering commercial services to flying passengers across the Atlantic. On June 28, 1939, between New York and Marseilles, France, Pan American inaugurated the world’s first transatlantic passenger service.
Over the last more than a century, Airplane has been experiencing consistent incremental innovation, leading to Airbus A380. As a result, both safety and comfort have been increasing. Furthermore, the cost of flying per Km has been falling making it a great example of incremental innovations.
Word processor software:
Word processor software is highly versatile and almost free now. But word processor software with very limited features of typing and editing emerged as a standalone computer. In 1973, the Vydec Word Processing System emerged at a price tag of $12,000 at the time. The emergence of the PC in the 1980s opened the scope for improving the word processor software and reducing its cost. Hence, innovators started adding and improving features. The adoption of a graphical user interface created a door for adding further ideas, leading to making it an indispensable office solution. Consequentially, through a race of incremental innovation over two decades, the word processor grew to make the personal computer a great success story.
Liquid crystal displays:
Flat screen LCD Television has become highly common in households across the world. But it did not show up as a great innovation. Incremental innovation has been at its core of success. After almost 100 years of invention, in the 1980s, liquid crystal display innovation emerged as the seven-segment display of watches and calculators. Subsequently, it grew as a preferred display for mobile handsets. And it kept growing with a flow of ideas, leading to increasing quality and size, and decreasing cost.
Lithium-ion battery, Microwave ovens, Toasters, and Washing machines:
Like all the incremental innovation examples explained above, among others, lithium-ion batteries, microwave ovens, toasters, and washing machines also emerged in primitive forms. For example, the microwave oven came as a 750 lb machine in 1947, consuming 3kw energy. This $5000 kitchen utensil needed a plumber for installing a water-cooling feature. Similarly, the toaster came to us as just wearing mesh to heat a loaf of bread. In 1909, General Electric released the GE model D-12, the first commercially successful electric toaster. Similarly, the washing machine emerged as a wooden barrel fitted with a handle for rotating soap-socked cloths. Over the decades, even centuries for some of them, they have been incrementally growing making them a member of incremental innovation examples.
Getting ideas for incremental innovation:
Getting a great idea is challenging. But creating a flow of ideas for consistently growing it is also very daunting. Furthermore, often, such a flow should be created with the help of a group of salaried professionals. Hence, we cannot just wait for the creative urge of these people to keep generating ideas in fueling the growth of the initial idea. Hence, we need a systematic approach to guide the creation of the flow of ideas, often over decades or a century.
For creating a consistent flow of ideas, we need to focus on empathy for understanding the pains being faced by the target users to get jobs done. We need to also focus on technology monitoring and advancement for generating profitably implementable ideas to keep addressing them. Hence, Passion for Perfection plays a vital role in creating successes of incremental innovation examples.
For example, mechanical technology played a vital role for more than 70 years in supporting ideas for incremental advancement of automobiles. Subsequently, electro-mechanical technology played a critical role in maintaining the flow of ideas. In recent times, sensors, electronics, and software technologies have been playing a crucial role in the incremental progression of this once pure mechanical machine.
But not all innovations equally keep progressing through an apparently endless flow of incremental ideas. For example, electric fans have remained more or less static for quite a long time. Furthermore, without empathy and passion for perfection, sometimes, innovators fail to profit from incremental innovations. Moreover, technology progression should be supportive for the profitable implementation of incremental ideas.
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