Ten types of Innovation – Concluding notes

With article on Bigbasket, the ten part innovation series comes to an end. When I understood the innovation types (created by Doblin) way back in 2011, my idea was to apply it from Indian context and make case studies fitting various types. It took two long years for me to complete this series with decent satisfaction.

Innovation has gone beyond building a particular product or service. By building something different doesn’t guarantee a business success, whereas ensuring customer derives value will. India, unlike some of the developed countries, is in the cusp of transformation where we have both traditional old school thinking and new school of thinking co-existing with each other. This made my inquiry to innovation all the more interesting. As and when I observed some innovative way to serve customers, I started mapping them back to Doblin’s model and came up with this whole series spanning across industries.

Please find URLs to individual posts as follows:

BOOK REVIEW: My journey – Transforming dreams into action

Abdul Kalam
Transforming dreams into actions

Author: APJ Abdul Kalam

Price: 195 INR

For most Indians, reading about Abdul Kalam and his work is always an inspiring item. Post retirement, he started off his journey into writing by scripting his auto-biography titled ‘The wings of fire’, followed by some popular books like Ignited Minds, Envisioning an empowered nation, Turning points etc. Most of them talk about his early life in Rameshwaram followed by his experience with various defense and space research organizations. Another popular theme in these book is about “Vision 2020”, where Kalam is been articulating India becoming super power by 2012 by achieving excellence in technology, rural transformation, self reliance and self sustainability.

In this latest book ‘My journey – Transforming dreams into Action’, Kalam has followed pretty much the same canvas but gone into very small and specific stories. Unlike his previous books, he has chosen real life anecdotes and shared deeper learning from them. Growing up in town like Rameshwaram with very high aspirations and dreams is not very easy situation to handle. With lesser resources and exposure, Kalam need to go thru lot of struggle and build his career brick-by-brick. The most inspiring part is about him overcoming umpteen numbers of challenges and overcoming them with very strong vision and value.

For example, he explains how he became a working person at the age of 8 by supplying newspapers in Rameshwaram and struggle associated with it. Every day he would to get up at 4 AM followed by his morning tuition and prayers. In order to support his family Kalam takes a part time job of distributing newspapers to Rameshwaram household. Thanks to some policy change, Chennai-Dhanushkodi passenger train which carried daily newspaper bundle from Chennai removed Rameshwaram station from the list. This resulted in Kalam doing every day stunt by catching paper bundle thrown from a moving train at Rameshwaram station. Kalam will then go on distributing them after which his school day would start. In the evening he would finish his homework and complete settlement of newspaper daily account with his cousin who gave him this opportunity. It was quite obvious to see the amount of stress and pressure he might have gone thru as a 8 year old boy, but the way he put it across along with key learnings is simply amazing.

There are multiple similar stories related to his profession filled with struggle and failures.  Inspired by the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Kalam and his team went on building Indian space story from the scratch.  He recalls how his professional career is similar to his early life in Rameshwaram – Lesser resources, Limited knowledge, larger challenges and a passion to win. Taking references from Bhagavat Gita to Thirukkural, Kalam mentions how he taken inspiration from these great ancient text to lift him up when things went wrong due to mistakes.  There were some repeated stories (ex: Church in Thumba becoming ISRO office, thanks to the local people), however they are always inspiring ones to hear again and again.

Unlike his previous books, Kalam kept this one very simple which can even read and understood by a high school kid. Definitely worth reading!

Innovation – Type 10 – Customer experience innovation [Case: Bigbasket]

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

The tenth and final type of innovation is around customer experience, which is all about creating a superior experience to customer’s entry to exit. In India many players attempted to do online grocery store for quite some-time now. It is extremely challenging business in Indian context (logistics, poor roads, unpredictable traffic, varying climate conditions etc…), which Bigbasket is able break by creating very good customer experience around it. I have personally tried and tested this many times, it works all the time with great experience.

Simple and effective User interface

The first thing that impressed me about Bigbasket is their simple and effective user interface. It was very easy to search/navigate for individual grocery items and create an order in a hassle free manner. Every item contains optimal information (neither too less nor too much) with put me into ease. Also when individuals go back for re-ordering, it keeps previous list handy for modification, which saves time for second time. This works very well for monthly grocery ordering.

Prompt alerts

While building an easy to use user interface might look relatively easy, integrating with backend supply chain to meet the promise is super critical. Especially in India, where the probability of providing prompt service is less (due to inherent challenges like infrastructure) providing prompt alerts to customers about the order status creates a lot of trust. In case of Bigbasket I get regular alerts (both in form of email and SMS) about my order status. Just before the final delivery of goods, authentication PIN is provided via SMS, so that both delivery person and customer can be assured about delivery.

Service delivery guarantee

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

After placing order, customers get to choose the time-slot in which they wanted the goods to be delivered. This super critical item (similar to Flipkart’s cash on delivery service) which helps office goers to get goods delivered at a convenient time. Their interface also shows the current booking status and slot availability in order to help customers choose the proper delivery time. From execution point of view, I have always seen they deliver goods on the time promised.

Return policy and wallet

During delivery, in case of item mismatch (ex: quantity) or damage (ex: broken seal), Bigbasket delivery folks take it back without any questions. Upon entering these items in backend (using Mobile application) customers again get immediate notification about when the updated item will be delivered. In case of item return, the money is kept back in a digital wallet which can be adjusted for next purchase.

In summary right from order placing to goods return, Bigbasket has done massive integration and prompt execution of their service. This gives a great end-to-end experience for customers in terms of quality, on-time delivery and reliability.

Innovation – Type 9 – Brand [Case: Decathlon India]

Decathlon
Decathlon

It’s time to catch-up with ten part innovation series. The Ninth type of innovation on Brand is about how offerings are expressed to customer to their benefit. It’s been quite a bit of challenge to identify a right case for this innovation, finally nailed it with Decathlon sports India. Decathlon entered India as a sports goods retailer, primarily catering to high end customers by having closed membership association. This was partly due to their positioning and partly due to retail industry regulations in India. Over a period of time they changed the way their brand is expressed to customers, which has made Decathlon as a popular brand today.

To start with, Decathlon instrumented making their employees as brand ambassadors by hiring sports enthusiasts for specific departments. Say if you are passionate cyclist, then you will be hired and made as cycle department sales person or supervisor. Naturally this makes a huge difference to a customer who walks into the shop to buy a bicycle. Given the pre-existing expertise and passion, naturally the sales person will understand customer needs better and ensure they are suggested with proper options in comparison with the person who don’t know anything about cycles. Added to that these employees are positioned well in their marketing communications, hoardings and future job hire needs.

The store and employee appearance also establishes a unique brand image among customers. Unlike other stores, Decathlon’s real estate size is relatively large in order for customers to try out various sports goods (ex: cycles). However they ensured their internal store arrangement (ex: racks) is very simple with lesser investments in order to optimize cost. One gets ‘no-nonsense-I-get-what-I-want’ feeling by entering any of their stores. Their employee appearance (ex: French beard with trendy hair-style) is also something different that I have observed in comparison with other places.

When Decathlon entered India, it was not open to all retail customers. One needs to get membership in order to shop from them, which got repositioned now. It is not open for all retail customers. By targeting upper-middle customer segment, they are able to establish Decathlon as a synonym for quality with decent pricing. This repositioning and communicating right message also changed the way Decathlon is perceived among common people.

In summary Decathlon changed the sports expression by innovating around their brand – in terms of store design, employee appearance, profile of employees and positioning. Globally they have been existing for more than three decades, but by adapting to some of the local challenges, they are well positioned their brand in sports goods retailing.

Useful Tamil websites

I have been an avid follower of Tamil Internet, which has grown into leaps and bounds over years. All dimensions content, technology and choice of contents is getting enriched day-by-day. Following are some of the useful sites which I follow:

Blogs:

Writers:

Web sites:

For buying Tamil books online:

Data structure assignments and torture

Data structure & algorithms form backbone of programming. It is expected that any computer science graduate to have very good experience in using various data structures like linked lists, queues, stacks, trees, hash tables etc. During my REC Warangal days, passing thru the Data structure course was a real torture. The professor will ensure we slog thru our bones by having a very strict evaluation mechanism to evaluate every other assignment. Let me explain this in detail.

To start with, every week a new assignment topic will be given. We will create a basic design and start coding them, while theoretical part was still thought in the classroom. By the end of the week (Sunday 5 PM) we were supposed to copy the corresponding C file into a particular directory with a particular format. If it is done even at 5:01, it will not be allowed as an automated script would block write access to directory. Followed by this, every C program will be turn thru a Shell script, which will find 20% of total lines randomly and delete from the program by placing some special character (ex: /* $ */) as a placeholder. There is also a mandate that all assignments should not have any comments, thereby preventing students escaping by filling up comment lines instead of actual C program statements.

The story is not over yet! During lab session (in the next week), one hour of time will be provided where each one of us needs to fill-up deleted 20% lines followed by successful compilation and execution of the program. Here also timings are very strict. Just after one hour a script will automatically logout each of us from the computer. In the final phase of evaluation each of us should show the truncated program (from previous phase, whatever state it may be) and explain/answer some difficult questions related to data structure, asked by the professor. At any point of time the professor gets doubt (of copying assignment) whole assignment score will be nullified.

At the age of 18, it was too much of a pressure to handle. Completing program on time, copying to specified directory before Sunday 5 PM, Missing a meal/dinner, Skipping sleep, trying to fill-up missing lines within a hour and answering questions was a too long a process. In order to make it effective, the professor distributed marks across all these phases, thereby one cannot escape so easily without working hard. At the end of evaluation, I used to get a huge sigh of relief and sleep like a baby for hours together. Each one of us used to curse the professor for torturing us so much!

Today when I look back, I get a totally different perspective. If not for that strong evaluation mechanism, each one of us could have become lazy and never learned the art of programming. We could have mugged up some programs and passed exams. In my another post about going technical hands-on, I mentioned about debugging some of my old Kernel programs within a week, even though I was out of touch from programming for years together now. Definitely, the DNA which got injected in form of data structure programming is still there in my blood, which is helping me to pick-up programming with ease.

I also tried out a Shell script (of deleting 20% random lines from a C program), will upload it soon.

Audiobooks – New mode of learning

I have been a regular reader of books over years now. Every year I used to read 12 books (one book a month) until 2012. Last year it was very challenging to keep up with work expectations, family priorities, travel and fitness related activities. Definitely I was missing books not sure where and how I will make time for it.

I stumbled upon audio-books in a book-store, thought of giving it a shot. Thanks to Bangalore traffic I at-least end up spending anywhere between 1 to 1.5 hours in traffic, where listening to FM radio or audio CD becomes boring after some time. I have interleaved it with Audiobooks, which has opened up new mode of learning. Following are the pros and cons of Audio-books.

Pros:

  • Excellent way to catch-up with book reading in a busy schedule added with traffic jams. After getting into the habit of listening, longer traffic jams have become an opportunity for me to listen to few chapters from audio-book.
  • Compared to physical book reading, audio books are faster. Based on my experience, I was able to complete one book in a week (with 7-8 hours of drive time). This definitely provides a ‘feel-good’ factor!
  • Easy to carry, share and store. Obviously they occupy less space inside and outside house, I am able to create a small sharing circle in office where we keep exchanging audio-books.

Cons:

  • Audio book listening experience cannot equate book reading experience. Especially during driving, I was not able to give 100% concentration on what is being told from the audio system. This also sometimes gives a ‘incomplete’ feeling
  • Relatively I found good audio books are costly than printed edition. At least in India, average book audio costs about 500 INR, which is quite high, compared to print edition. Of course it varies from book to book
  • Continuously listening to audio books creates a ‘boring’ feeling especially during long drives. It is good to interleave audio books with good music and radio. I found a decent combination of these three worked well for me.

Resources:

Technically, hands-on

Often ‘Technically, hands-on’ becomes a critical skill to have no matter the type of role/responsibility an individual is handling in an organization. Bitten by the same bug I thought of making my hands ‘dirty’ by working on some of the older Linux programs I have created. Long time back Yahoo used to offer their Geocities services, where individuals can create their personal websites. There were no automated wizard those days, where I ended up creating HTML pages on my own and uploaded into particular location (provide by Yahoo) by keeping all my older projects in ‘cloud’. Eventually Geocities services was discontinued by Yahoo, luckily a replica maintained by *.ws domain. I was able to retrieve all my old projects and corresponding data from this updated domain. Here is the URL, where I learned my first baby steps about personal website development and writing: http://geocities.ws/b_jayakumar2002

Cut to Linux! I have downloaded two of my older projects which perform the following functionality:

Both programs were written in older version of Kernel (2.4.2) whereas current mainline is running with 3.11. In the mean time the Glibc (GNU C library) also gone thru significant changes, some of the older routines and data types may not work as expected. Since I have been out of programming for years together, I had some initial difficulty to get these programs working. However I was taken by surprise the way open source help system has evolved over years. Let me state my key observations as follows:

  • Thanks to Virtualization, I was able to get a development machine up and running in a matter of 30 minutes using VMware. After trying out multiple distributions (Suse 11, Open Suse 12.3 and Ubuntu 12.04) I decided to go with Open Suse 12.3 as it offered all pre-built libraries. No doubt, Ubuntu offers excellent user interface, suites more to a desktop users than programmers
  • Compiling kernel and booting up new image has become much simple. There are very less manual steps to be followed as some of them (ex: making entry into grub) is created automatically. I still remember how much challenging it was to get kernel 2.4.2 image with lilo loader up and running!
  • There are tons of Linux related documentation, help sites and real-time experience sharing happening which makes getting help much easier. Especially Stackoverflow (http://stackoverflow.com/), TLDP (http://www.tldp.org/) and Linux-cross reference (http://lxr.free-electrons.com/) seem to provide anything ranging from syntax to data structure tracing inside Kernel
  • For any theoretical reference, Slideshare (http://slideshare.net) is having excellent presentations, where I was able to quickly refer back in case any theoretical questions
  • Linux Kernel debugging ecosystem also matured as lot. There are a bunch of diagnostics tools available (I only used strace, printk though), which makes Kernel debugging much easier. Need to explore more on both user and kernel space Linux debugging tools

It was fun to catch-up with programming after a long time. Will share more ,as I explore more into the world of Linux, Kernel and Open source!

On Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)

Kaizen – Japanese meaning (“Good change”)

For a while now I have been associated with various continuous improvement activities both at office and home, which has been a humbling experience. When we know things are not going as expected or there is a shortcoming in the way it is executed, there are two ways to look at it. First approach is to blame/penalize/criticize some or all the people associated with it, including self. This results in accumulation of negative energy eventually leads nowhere other than cribbing and complaining. Second option is to seek ways to improve the situation by having continuous improvement mindset. When I was referring back to some standard philosophy, I came across Kaizen introduced by Japanese post world war as a waste reduction in a system and aiming towards continuous improvement, which is both philosophy and practice.

Let us consider the following situations:

  • Given the nature of a project or work, existing standard project management execution frameworks (ex: Sprint) doesn’t work due to some internal issues
  • Given time-frame of the project, process/life-cycle compliance goes out of window, resulting in lesser process compliance
  • At home, we often have situation where we end up running/searching for photocopies of necessary documents (ex: passport) which is not available when required

As mentioned above, it is very easy to complain and pass on the buck (saying person X, who is responsible for this has not done his/her job). On the other hand, if we take small but steady steps towards improvement, with bigger inspiration in mind then thing start turning into a different situation. Personally it results in the following:

  • By accepting the fact that something is not correct, brings down ego of individuals by making us humble
  • Ensures individuals take up inspirational mindset, thereby approaching things from solution point of view rather than problem alone
  • True test of persistence, as the journey of continuous improvement never ends
  • Over a period time creates a systematic and practical approach to innovation which makes huge difference to individual and business

Japanese started off with automotive industry with no background, when their country was in debacle. In my opinion being humble and taking up mindset to improve things over a period of time has paid them tremendously by creating Toyotas and Sony’s of the world. By adopting some of these practices by understanding the philosophy definitely make a difference for us and people around us both in workplace and in family.

Are you ready to take up this journey?

Book retailing: Traditional v/s online

Recently I had a casual conversation with owner of a large scale book store. His is a family owned business, been in book retailing for decades with great passion for reading. Upon further discussions he mentioned about his book retailing business heading south (for months together) due to the emergence of e-commerce portals like Flipkart. It is quite obvious that e-commerce portals enjoy benefits of on-demand inventory, lesser operational costs (ex: rental) and direct supplier relationships helps to offer a better price. Added to that, most of Indian e-commerce portals are backed by heavy funds from venture capitalists, which help them to provide un-realistic discounts on books with additional benefits like free shipping, cash-on-delivery etc. Over a period of time, these e-commerce portals build valuation for the company based on number of transactions and incrementally grow by bringing more products (apparels, electronics, toys etc…) thereby becoming online mega store. On the other hand, traditional book retailers are struggling to keep up their operations with increasing rental/labor costs, overhead of inventory and limitation of not able to offer higher discount as it will affect their bottom line.

As a matter of fact this problem is not new. In countries like US e-commerce portals (likes of Amazon) took away significant market share from traditional book stores but some of them re-invented themselves and survived this challenge. I was wondering what Indian book stores (considering Indian context) can do to compete fiercely online bookstores. Here are some of my ideas which can be considered:

  • Similar to book stores of the west (ex: Barns and Noble) traditional book stores should re-shape themselves as modern libraries by creating a compelling reading experience around it. Readers should be compelled to walk in, take a look of their choice and spend hours in the shop by going thru their favorites. By adding additional factors (like coffee shop, comfortable table & chairs for reading, offering sample chapters for free etc…) these book shops can attract regular visitors who will potentially end up buying these books
  • There are some specific types of books (ex: Children books) come in various shape, size and weight, which is still not comfortable to buy online. As a parent I spent lot of time considering these aspects before buying book for my daughter by physically visiting the shop. Such type of books still has a lot of ‘touch-and-feel’ factor associated with it. Traditional retailers should think of some special promotions and tie-ups to push these books thru young parents and readers
  • Among adult readers (both fiction and non-fiction) there is a strong possibility to build a community based on common interest. Such communities combined with social media can be made as early adapters of new releases and share their viewpoints in terms of face-to-face get together, sharing book reviews, meeting authors directly and exchanging book related practical experiences. Such community should be provided with special discounts and covered under loyalty programs, thereby attacking clusters
  • Even now many of the traditional shop owners are expecting customers to physically walk into the shop and order for books. This should be changed by adapting home delivery based on phone order, building a micro-site for the bookstore where alternative channels of reaching out to the customer. Such new channels should be backed with excellent customer service in terms of delivery time and quality to re-invent the whole business.

I am not sure if any of the traditional book store owners got necessary mindset to re-invent their business by adopting new ways to sell books in this digital era. Unless they adapt to this change and re-invent the way they do business, it is going to be extremely difficult to survive.