Innovation Does NOT Always Mean Progress
SOMETIMES RADICAL CHANGE CAN BE FOR THE WORSE...
A motto widely accepted in modern industry today is, " Innovate or die..." In most cases, the costs of new product development are happily accepted, even by the bean counters in the accounting department. And in many companies, it appears that a "creative" euphoria takes over, under which there is an unquestioning push to create new and "better" products.
In many cases, you have to wonder whether anyone had really thought through a given new product development ...
In my experience and considered opinion, the situation with purported innovations is akin to the parable of "The Emperor's New Clothes". Nobody wants to challenge a prevailing enthusiasm for a new product or other development. Nobody wants to be the naysayer who points out that a "new and improved" product isn't really any better than what now exists, and in fact, may be worse. Consider the following example of a product with which I have long-term personal experience, the Zodiac G3 automatic swimming pool cleaner. It is probably...
...the best automatic self-powered swimming pool cleaner ever designed or made, bar none.
But first, please understand that I have absolutely no connection to the Zodiac company, or to the design or manufacture of this product, or to the marketing and sales of it. My only connection to the product is as a consumer who has used this product for over 10 years, and just elected to replace the one I have, which is finally wearing out after 10 years of constant sun and chlorine exposure, with the same product.
Second, understand that I live in South Florida, where we take our swimming pools very seriously, because they are in use almost 365 days a year, where we have an entire major service industry in pool cleaning and maintenance. So when I tell you that this is the best automatic pool cleaner ever conceived and manufactured, understand also that it is not only my opinion involved, but that of every pool service contractor with whom I've spoken, and that of dozens of other consumers with whom I've had contact.
This particular product is a marvel of simplicity. It is driven by water that is being suctioned through the G3 cleaner into the pool filter by the existing pool pump. The cleaner has only one moving part, a kind of guppy-mouthed diaphragm that opens and closes, causing the intake water flow to pulsate, and thereby driving the cleaner head endlessly and quietly back and forth underwater while it vacuums and scrubs algae and dirt from the pool's submerged bottom and side surfaces. The G3 is a rare case of receiving high value for absolutely every penny you spend on it.
So why am I telling you all this? And what does it have to do with this discussion of innovation? I am using this example because...
...the Zodiac G3 has been replaced by the manufacturer with new products that are nowhere as effective or reliable.
It's now almost impossible to find the G3 in the pool supply stores. The one I just purchased to replace my 10 year old G3 had to be ordered online from a warehouse and shipped to me.
The irony of this case of innovation and product replacement is that the older product in this case receives, as far as I can determine, much better consumer ratings than the new model that replaces it. So why the innovation in the first place? It can't be reduce manufacturing costs, for the replacement product is more complicated and, I'd bet, more expensive to produce. It can't be to improve profit margin, because older G3 and the newer replacement sell at exactly the same price. And it can't be to maintain market share by presenting to the market a quantum leap upward in terms of performance, because the replacement product just doesn't work as well as the product it replaces.
Innovation pursued not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, too often produces retrogression.
I submit that decisions like this one to replace a perfectly good product, indeed a great product, are driven by the belief that innovation is in itself a worthwhile goal — when it's not. Oh sure, the old saw, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, is trite and, moreover, is usually used to justify a culture of company lethargy. But the obverse should also be considered seriously, namely, if it works better than just about anything else on the market, don't replace it — unless you can determine that the replacement will be measurably better.
If increased marketing sizzle is what a company is after, then some graphics or packaging changes might do just as well, with much better cost-efficiency. Toothpaste and cereal makers learned this long ago. They change the packaging. And at times claim to produce "a great new taste". But in the final analysis, they don't try vainly to gild the lily. That's something the manufacturing sector seems still not to have gotten. — Phil Friedman
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