Reinventing the wheel


It's easy to think that something is so simple that you couldn't improve it. So unimportant you wouldn't make any money perfecting it. So low-tech your intellect would be wasted even thinking about it. So low margin, or low volume your company would never make a dollar, yen, or euro. It's easy to think that. But you would be wrong.

Kumho, a Korean tire maker, keeps reinventing the humble tyre. They did it by altering its colour so that customers can co-ordinate their tyres with their vehicle paintwork. They did it with the world's first 32-inch tyres for SUV adornment. And they did it again by creating tyres that produce red smoke inspired by a video of car drifting. The chemists invented a secret compound and within six months, the tires were wowing people in drifting competitions.

So by paying attention to customer lifestyles, you can create limitless variations of any product. By adjusting details of a product to reflect new tastes and fashions, you can increase profit margins and follow the popularity curve of new trends.

In the bad old days, Nike organised around product categories: shoes, apparel, and equipment. Now, it focuses on sports, tribes, and activities. One shoe is for cricket players in India, another for lacrosse players, another for Native American athletes. There are more 13,000 different products. All they sell are reinventions of shoes, sweats, shorts, and socks: $16 billion a year and still growing.

Each reinvention involves innovation. Nike's first breakthrough product came by pouring rubber into a waffle iron to make soles that provide better traction. Four of the seven top runners at the Olympics wore them.

It continued to grow with the Air Jordan shoe with its patented system developed by an independent inventor with pressurized gas inside polyurethane heels. Nike labs have created anti-shock plastics for heels and pro-bounce plastics for toes. Its competitors offer shock reducing springs and computer chips to cushion joints.

Reinvention of the sports shoe is possible to meet the preferences of individual sports, nations, age groups, genders, fashions. The possibilities for reinvention are endlessly extended by advances in material technology (what it is made of) and production technology (how it is made).

Now, Adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Converse all offer an individualised service that measures your feet in-store then delivers your made-to-measure shoes within three weeks. In the future, personal 3D photocopiers will digitally measure your feet in the comfort of your own home. This is not some flight of science fiction fantasy – all the technology required already exists. SO ask yourself: what element of your product could you customize?

Without 'low-tech' products, there would be no market for most 'high-tech' products. Consumers do not buy material and production technology directly because they offer no direct benefit. They are useful when packaged into products that consumers want.

This is the innovation chicken and egg – meeting consumer demand requires better technology while improved technology can produce new products that drive consumer demand. Buyers and sellers of technology have a mutual interested in working out how to offer innovation to consumers.

New Markets require reinvention of the same type of product. Heinz, once famous for their 57 varieties, has more than 1,100 products. It sells ketchup in blue, red, green, purple, pink, and orange colours. Each time it introduces a new colour its market share increases. Fashion food.

New Tastes within the same market also require innovation. A Canadian man reinvented snack food when he created the first high-energy bar for athletes in his kitchen. The company, Powerbar, now has products for warming up, competing, and recovery. Scientists mix carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein in a blend designed to meet the body's needs. Intelligent food.

Gillette reinvented the safety razor in 1895 by making it disposable. transforming the shaving category from a specialist service to a personalised mass-market. It has continued to reinvent in response to innovation, in anticipation of innovation, and to grow the market. It was the first to launch a razor marketed to women, the double-blade razor, pivot point, lubricating strip, spring-loaded blades, micro fins, triple-blades, battery powered disposable razor, five-blades, and rear-trim blade.

One lesson from this is that you can reinvent any product. Reinvention of one product category often leads to a new category. You can figure out ways to package new technology into products to cater to new tastes and create new markets.

The more important lesson is that anything that is invented can be reinvented and often should be since the original need, or problem, is still relevant. What's more, since those problems keep on returning, the solutions need to keep evolving.

They need to improve to cope with new versions of age-old challenges and new strains of human weaknesses - whether those weaknesses are profound, like the fear that drives people to racism, or the trivial, like your inability to remember where you put your mobile phone or the name of that song that you've been humming all day.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Toyota says that everyone's job is to 'Improve 1000 things by 1% continuously'. Apple works to make sure that its own products obsolete its current range rather than be obsoleted by its competitors. So this is product innovation.

So why is there not the same focus on process innovation? The approach of constantly striving to improve the way people do things. To be fanatical about driving our non-value added activities. But this needs to be done in a controlled, managed and governed manner or a company will fall foul of regulatory compliance.

At Nimbus ( this is our driving passion. Our software is the ‘operations manual’ helps companies in every industry constantly improve.

The results are staggering. Carphone Warehouse can see an additional £55m of revenue from the 800 UK stores purely by getting standardised, consistent information to staff on all the core activities in a store. Lockheed Martin improved its win rate from 30% to 100% when bidding for big systems implementation projects.

Why? Because most projects use MS Powerpoint or Visio and whilst you can visualise some improvements, you can make them stick. “Sustainable improvement” is the goal.

This is discussed in my book Common Approach, Uncommon Results. Read the book summary at and if you like it I’ll send you a free copy.

ian gotts UK