Magazine article Management Today

Perish Not the Thought

Magazine article Management Today

Perish Not the Thought

Article excerpt

With true innovation - not just changing the colour or tweaking the package - the key to competitive advantage, managers must create the climate in which new ideas can flourish.

Textile experts agree that it is simply not possible to make shantung with filament yarn instead of silk. Which is why they are baffled by Welbeck UK's shimmering new shantung fabric, apparently identical to the real thing but with not an ounce of silk in it. So how was it done? 'We made it by using the machines incorrectly,' says chairman Tony Berryman cheerily. 'We love it when we're told something's impossible,' he adds.

So it would seem. Here is another example, this time of a double impossibility. Build not your house upon the sand, the Bible enjoins us: much less, build it upon sinking sands, where any reinforcements poured in as foundation will just sink without trace. But in this case Holy Writ may have to be revised. Working with leading fibre suppliers, Welbeck has developed its revolutionary geosynthetic fabric, which is light, flexible and so strong that it has been used, for example, to support the nine-metre wall which now spans the spongy morass of Cardiff Bay. And this after construction firm Ove Arup had tried, and failed, to lay foundations of concrete ('It would have been easier to have called in Moses,' Berryman says).

This is innovation indeed; a product which redefines its industry, in effect crossing the border from textiles to engineering. Its scope is immense - and it is significantly cheaper than traditional engineering methods. Not only does the material perform a hitherto impossible task, but the fabric was also developed despite protests from equipment suppliers Karl Mayer, the world's leading knitting-machine manufacturers, that knitting with such thick fibre would be 'impossible'. Welbeck's engineers and technicians urged the German supplier company on, and the collaboration eventually proved the impossible to be possible after all.

Innovation has been Welbeck's self-imposed brief since it was formed in 1990 through the management buy-out of three Coats Viyella companies. Already very strong technically at the time of the buy-out -'good copiers,' in Berryman's words - these original companies have since become more ambitious in design and technology, winning prize after prize for innovation (most recently, at the British Cloth Show) as the zeal for developing new fabrics has taken hold. Turnover has doubled (from [pounds]14.8 million to [pounds]32 million) in a notoriously difficult period for textiles. The new technical division has yet more geosynthetic solutions (still secret) up its sleeve. And the company's innovatory flair has also won it the exclusive licence to develop Xymid, a new generation of stretch materials, for DuPont - to the surprise, no doubt, of the Japanese textile giant Toray, which already had the Lycra licence from DuPont and was widely expected to win the Xymid project too.

Berryman's belief that 'innovation is the only way forward' may seem of particular relevance to the UK textile industry which has been so especially vulnerable to low-cost competition from overseas, but in truth innovation is vital to all companies in whatever sector if they want to stay the globally competitive course. As author and consultant Gary Hamel argued at a Strategos/KPMG 'management summit' last December, we are reaching the limits of what we can achieve by improved operational performance. So, he claims, it is innovation which provides the real key to competitive advantage.

True innovation (as opposed to tweaking the packaging or changing the colour of the stripes in the toothpaste), says Hamel, involves challenging your starting assumptions - in other words, what you think about your industry, your products, your customers, the future. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he provides a schematic breakdown of how innovation may be achieved. You can rethink the product or service, by radically improving their value; by separating and then reconceiving form and function (as in the use of credit cards for hotel room entry, for example); or by building 'joy of use' into all you provide. …

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