simple innovations

The twist-off beer cap and nine other simple innovations that surprise and delight

Originally published on December 29, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail:

I read a great phrase the other day: “Innovation is not renovation.” I couldn’t agree more. Innovation goes beyond slapping a new coat of paint on a product or service. It’s about finding ways to add real value for your customers. Value that makes their lives better, easier or less complicated.

Many business leaders shy away from innovation because they think it needs to be complicated. In reality, the process is easier than they think because successful innovation harnesses the obvious.

The essence of innovation lies in understanding what clients need and capitalizing on market shifts. It’s about continually re-engaging customers by meeting their changing preferences, often before they even realize those needs have changed.

Companies should start by recognizing their many opportunities to practice easy, effective innovation. The following 10 examples may reset your brain. They’ll help you see how simple it can be to develop new products, services and processes that will make a splash in any market.

The common theme? All 10 of these examples surprise and delight customers by solving problems, old or new. When you spend day and night obsessing over customers’ needs, innovation really becomes an exercise in bringing the obvious to life.

The twist-off beer cap

Even though the twist-off cap has been around for 50 years, it remains a pre-eminent example of simple yet game-changing innovation. I was working with a group of engineers not long ago and asked them to suggest simple innovations that have changed their lives. The twist-off beer cap was their favourite. Before twist-offs were commonplace, life was harsh and cruel. Using the engineers’ words (not mine), once you misplaced the bottle opener early in the evening at a university party, you spent far too long searching for it through the night.

Side-mirror sensors

I’ve yet to drive one of the new self-parking cars, so I will cite an automotive innovation that’s a little more mainstream: the side-mirror sensors that light up when a car is in your blind spot and blink when you put your turn signal on. An ingenious step forward in driver safety.

Coffee sleeves

Simple, obvious, wildly inexpensive – yet only invented in 1993. These finger-saving pieces of textured paperboard may be the most elegant innovation of all.

Selfie stick: If people are going to insist on taking photographs of themselves and their friends, why not help them take better photographs of themselves and their friends? A classic example of a lightning-quick response to a sudden behaviour shift.

Netflix, Nook and Kindle

We are no longer patient people. So instead of making us visit a storefront or wait for delivery, these powerful enablers of entertainment allow us to access any movie, TV series, video game or book we want … now!


This global room-renting, house-sharing app lets you choose precisely the accommodation you want. It’s cost-effective for users and a new business model for owners. A classic case of disintermediation.

Remote car starter

Hey, this is Canada. On a cold, dark winter morning, a warmed-up car may not make your day perfect. But it’s a hell of a good start.

Tide Pods

No more searching for the scoop and guessing how much detergent to use. Set and forget: Someone else has done all the work.

HOV lanes

As long as we have internal combustion engines, fewer cars on those roads is good for the planet. Rewarding drivers for sharing the ride with passengers makes eminent sense.

Personal service

There is nothing better than high-quality service to build customer loyalty. One of Canada’s foremost service practitioners is Longo’s, an independent Ontario grocery chain. When a customer asks where an item is, Longo’s policy is not to have an employee just point to the right aisle, but to walk customers to the exact shelf where the product sits. At a Longo’s recently, I watched an elderly shopper ask for help. Longo’s team member led her to the right location, and then re-arranged the goods in the basket of her walker to assuage the customer’s fear that her softer groceries might get damaged. Little things make a big difference.

If you’re out to make a difference in your market, you’ll face two well-known barriers to change: the naysayers who argue “That’ll never work,” and those who say “We don’t have time to innovate.” Ignore the doubts. Innovation is easy when you target real needs with inexpensive, intuitive solutions. Look for simple wins. And keep the breakthroughs coming.

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The Pizza Saver and nine other innovations that surprise and delight

Originally published on August 12, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail:

Many business leaders shy away from innovation because they think it’s too complicated, but in reality, the process is easier than they think. Successful innovation harnesses the obvious.

The essence of innovation lies in understanding consumer needs and capitalizing on market shifts. It’s about continually re-engaging customers by meeting their changing wants and needs, even before they realize they’re changing.

Companies should start by recognizing the many practical, easy and effective examples of innovation. The following 10 examples will set your brain spinning and help you see how simple it can be to develop new products, services and processes that make a splash in any market.

The common theme? They’re all examples of ways to surprise and delight customers by addressing one of their challenges.

1. Pizza Saver: Seriously? The mundane little table-like plastic part that holds the top of the box away from the pizza? For those who suffered through university with pizza stuck to the inside of cardboard boxes, life has never been the same. Kids today have no idea how good they have it, but Carmela Vitale does. She was awarded a patent for this three-legged wonder in 1985.

2. Cakepop: Credit Angie ‘Bakerella’ Dudley for this delightful creation. The lollipop-type pastry is bright, fun, engaging and a wonderful treat. It will never be mistaken for health food, but it’s a huge improvement over a big slab of cake, and the on-the-go ease of the lollipop stick is perfect for today’s hectic pace.

3. Double-window drive-through: If the drive-through wasn’t already fast food’s answer to our busy lifestyles, the double window was the icing on the cake. The second window lets restaurants separate the money exchange from food service, saving time and reducing friction. Simple, yes, but a nice addition to the customer experience.

4. Taco Bell’s breakfast taco waffle: Behold, a taco-shaped waffle shell wrapped around a sausage patty or bacon, with scrambled eggs and cheese, served with syrup. Why did this make the list? Taco Bell has finally figured out an in-brand way to extend its hours of operation and generate more revenue per square foot. Operating leverage is a tasty treat for every business.

5. Wheels on suitcases: Thank you, Bernard Sadow, for introducing these babies in 1970 (despite the fact he was turned down by countless department-store buyers). What traveller wants to lug 50 pounds of baggage through never-ending airport terminals? For the record, it took humanity a year longer to put wheels on suitcases than it did to put a man on the moon.

6. The HondaVAC vaccum cleaner in the Honda Odyssey: This was a tough one. Do busy families choose the Dodge Caravan’s Stow ‘N Go seats, which let you create more storage space in your minivan without having to haul out the seats? Or do they choose the Odyssey, with its built-in Shop-Vac ready to clean up every little spill? Choice is good.

7. Velcro shoes: For those too young or too old to fuss around with laces, and for their care-givers, Velcro closures are a game changer. They make the great outdoors more accessible than ever. Plus, a shout-out for Velcro jumping, where you slip into a full-body Velcro suit and leap onto Velcro-covered walls, just for the heck of it.

8. Self-sealing envelopes: For those entrepreneurs who used to end each business day writing out cheques and licking their tongues raw – what took so long?

9. The Post-It note: It’s the semi-sticky poster child for simple, breakthrough innovations. But with 3M producing 50 billion of these a year, how can we ignore it? Especially since the humble Post-It brand has now become the national sponsor of the speed-innovating phenomenon known as Startup Weekend.

10. Squeezable jars: Whether you’re pouring mayonnaise, jam, honey, or ketchup, the squeezable jar is welcome relief for every meal. Old brands such as Britain’s Marmite spread are finding new life in plastic packaging. Little things make a big difference.

If you’re out to make a difference in your market, you’ll face two well-known barriers to change: the naysayers who argue “that’ll never work” or those who say “we don’t have time to innovate.” Ignore them. Target a problem. Look for simple solutions. And keep the innovations coming.

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Simple innovation can delight customers and save you money

Originally published as a special to The Globe and Mail, May 8, 2013.


I was recently standing on a corner in Washington DC and my Blackberry started to buzz. In came a text that read, “Cab 118 is on the way and is less than one mile away. Text WHERE to see where cab is.” How appropriate. How timely.

I had just delivered a keynote on innovation at the America Means Business conference to a roomful of new and aspiring entrepreneurs. And one of my key messages was “it’s not just the products and services that you sell, but how you deliver them that can be steeped in innovation and bring delight to your customers…and no, great customer-centric ideas don’t have to cost a lot of money!”

A seemingly mundane industry like cab service and Red Top Cab of Arlington, Virginia adopts a simple piece of technology that answers the age old question before it was even asked: “where’s my cab?” Simple, effective and certainly not cost prohibitive.

My point is that too many people think that innovation is limited to breakthrough products or services. It isn’t. In fact, process innovation – finding faster, cheaper and better ways to deliver your products and services to customers – can bring you a significant competitive advantage and substantial savings all while building brand equity, because there’s no better way to delight your customers than faster delivery of a better quality product.

Just look at Disney. They build delight into every process. When a child drops their ice cream on the ground at one of their theme parks, they turn that meltdown moment into one that delivers a happy memory. They replace the dropped treat with an upside down cone in a cup dressed up to look like a smiley face. Bad moment turned good.

Another example of innovative thinking closer to home happened when my 16-year-old son, Tommy, was still a toddler. We were shopping for groceries at Longo’s and he was having a fit in the fruit section trying to get at the grapes. One of the Longo’s staff saw me struggling and decided to cut some grapes up for him and put them into a little cup. Tommy was delighted and I was able to peacefully finish my shopping. Thank goodness Longo’s processes empower its people to go above and beyond. I never forgot it.

And the best news is that there are enormous hidden costs buried in status quo processes. Innovative thinking can be the key to uncovering and removing them. Done right, process innovation can even serve as a new source of financing.

It’s important to understand the difference between process innovation and the good old “slash and burn” method of boosting cash flow. In every organization, processes have a significant impact on costs: purchasing, inventories, reworking, downtime, lead-time, material travel time, delivery time, wasted time, and so on. All these processes add costs, which means they provide a wealth of opportunities for hefty savings. When you come up with new ways of improving throughput or order processing, or reducing wait-times and delivery times, it’s found money.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that you should stop thoughtful, rigorous cost-cutting. But in tough times, urgent reactive cost-cutting is too often shortsighted and arbitrary, done to appease stakeholders, shareholders and short-term quarterly reports. Unfortunately the long-term consequences aren’t usually factored into the equation. It’s an accounting exercise – cut budgets, trim fat, do less or do it less well. Doing more with less is possible, but it usually comes from a strategic approach to process, not quick-fix cutbacks. Too often, companies cut their way into bigger problems as they deliver less service, reduce customer satisfaction, undermine brand value, lose market share, and sacrifice growth for the appearance of efficiency. These steps can lead in the wrong direction, and hurt the company. Of course, costs must be cut, but the real goal should be to lower costs while building customer loyalty, not disenfranchising them.

A classic example of short-sighted cost-cutting is the automated help lines many companies have adopted. Not only do they frustrate customers who would rather speak to a live person, but many companies plough their savings into outbound marketing call centres that become necessary to replace the infuriated customers they could have kept in the first place. Funny how a number of companies are back to advertising ‘live’ attendants as a competitive advantage.

The innovation challenge

It’s been well documented how American Airlines Fuel Smart program – “the employee-led effort to safely reduce fuel consumption by implementing viable suggestions from employees throughout the airline” – has saved the airline millions of dollars through such initiatives such as the single-engine taxi and use of tow tractors to move planes between terminals and maintenance hangars.

My challenge to you is to review your processes and uncover cost-saving opportunities that are hiding in broad daylight, waiting for a new approach. Realize the savings and then reinvest your newfound cash to create market-engaging breakthroughs in product and service innovations.

It’s a positive, growth-centric focus and is a far cry from myopically trying to cut your way to a better bottom-line. Process innovation can be, without a doubt, one of the easiest, least expensive and most productive ways of investing in your business’s future. Process innovation can also be easy and quick because it includes countless small opportunities seen every day that every company, big or small, can do right away.

Challenge your people to look at how your products and services are made, supported and brought to market. Empower them to share their intimate knowledge of the processes they use every day. After all, no one knows them better – their strengths, their weaknesses, their potential to transform.

Think very simple (for now). It worked for Red Top Cab and Disney and it can work for you, if you’re up for the challenge.

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