Archive for the Tag 'incremental improvement'

Innovation by Improvement

Point: You don’t have to be the originator of an idea to succeed with it.

Story: Sam Walton didn’t invent discount retailing. Instead, he learned of the idea from an article about two Ben Franklin stores in Minnesota trying self-service. At the time, self-service retail was a brand new concept. Previously, customers came to a counter and the full-service clerks helped the customer by picking items from the shelves behind the counter. Upon reading the article about this new concept, Sam went to investigate. “I rode the bus all night long to two little towns up there — Pipestone and Worthingon,” Walton recounts in his autobiography. “They had shelves on the side and two island counters all the way back. No clerks with cash registers around the store. Just checkout registers up front. I liked that. So I did that, too,” In 1950, Walton’s Five and Dime was the third self-service variety store in the country.

But Sam didn’t simply imitate this one discount retailing idea. He continued to toy & tinker with it and improve it, even as it grew and became successful. He kept his stores well stocked with lots of items, stayed open late, bought goods in bulk to reduce costs, and pioneered communications and logistics technologies to maintain his everyday low price strategy. “As good as business was, I never could leave well enough alone, and, in fact, I think my constant fiddling and meddling with the status quo may have been one of my biggest contributions to the later success of Wal-Mart.”

Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, sees this style of constant innovation as key characteristic of creative people. He says, it’s not a flash-in-the-pan, one-time-only thing. it’s a whole style of existence. People who are creative are always thinking about the domains in which they work. They’re always tinkering. They’re always saying, “what makes sense here, what doesn’t make sense? And if it doesn’t make sense, can I do something about it?”


  • Be open to the new and different — seek out odd-ball business practices in out-of-the-way places
  • Study how others do what they do, why they do it, and how it can work in your situation
  • Adopt and adapt those discovered ideas and keep tweaking the ideas

For more information: Sam Walton: Made In America and Creative Spirit by Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray.

3 Comments »Case study, Creativity, How-to, Innovation, Strategy