That’s exactly the mindset that Reebok’s Head of Future, Bill McInnis, takes on a daily basis. The former NASA Engineer isn’t afraid to break away from the traditional. This October, Bill and his Reebok Future team launch ‘Liquid Factory’ – a ground-breaking manufacturing innovation that could fundamentally change the process and speed of footwear creation.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Bill to talk about Liquid Factory and came away with some tips on how to innovate in any industry.
Bill has three tenets to his team’s brainstorming and development strategy that you need to take to your next brain storming session.
1. Fight falling back into “the way we do things”
For us, first and foremost, it was being given that license to do things differently than the way that we’ve always done them. The rest of the company has to keep moving forward with the same type of volumes and growth; we have the luxury of being able to think, “What if we did it completely different?” Start with a clean sheet of paper and asking yourself, “How would you make your product if you had everything available that exists in technology today, as opposed to everything that was available 30 and 40 years ago?” It should lead you to very different places.
What prompted you to skip away from evolution to revolution?
It’s part of being tasked with analyzing “process” as the center of what you’re responsible for. When you’re tasked with optimizing process and looking at new ways to make things, that sets you down a path automatically to divorce yourself from the way that we already make things now. We have lots of talented people at Reebok who are really, really good at the existing process. We have lots of talented people working on evolutions of that process. It’s all of those people that allow us to do what we’re doing.
2. Always go back to the problem you’re trying to solve
The fundamental question we start with every time is “What’s wrong?” What’s wrong with the existing way we do something or make something? With this, it was a matter of narrowing down to what part of manufacturing we wanted to solve. Was it shipping costs, labor? We focused on molds because, in our opinion, if you have molds, you need people to load and unload the molds. If you have people, you’re chasing inexpensive labor. If you have inexpensive labor, you have shipping. So everything basically boiled back to molds because every shoe made in our industry uses molds. Ask yourself these same questions, and always try to go back to the true root of the issue you’re trying to solve, sometimes it may be different than what you initially thought.
3. Emulate thriving fields even if they’re unrelated to your own industry
Liquid Factory came from the automotive industry. Not from the big shiny car factories you might think of but a smaller manufacturer outside Detroit who had developed a method of drawing gaskets onto components instead of molding them. Maybe not too sexy to most people, but we were fascinated. It wasn’t just the automotive industry, though; it was looking at automation in general, to start with. The automotive industry stood out to us because they’ve made huge strides in building more automated manufacturing. But we looked at electronics manufacturing and other sectors as well.
One of the fascinating things to me about a company like Tesla is watching the process behind it as it grows. They’re making the automotive industry process, one that looks pretty advanced to us in footwear, look old. With Tesla you’re seeing a company entering an industry with fresh eyes and making every manufacturing decision based on what’s available today. There is no “old way” for them.
The beauty of looking at other industries is that by the time we see the process, they’ve already done a lot of the hard work of building and refining the process before we even get there. We’re a small team so the more we can leverage what other companies already do well, the better. I think this is especially applicable in the era of start-ups and small, nimble businesses.
No matter if you’re a shoe inventor, chef, artist or business person, Bill’s advice applies – think outside the mold – don’t rely on your predisposed notions; go to the root of the problem, and don’t forget to check out what everyone else is doing. Who knows where your imagination could take you!
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