The term innovation has become one of the most popular ‘buzz’ words in business today and companies throughout the world use it to describe their culture. What does it mean to really be innovative?Innovation can be defined as a company’s ability to turn an idea into a solution, but it should include that the solution must resolve a meaningful problem and provide a value to the customer. In today’s world, companies are rushing to introduce a new value to customers. But what separates those companies that just introduce products from those that provide innovative solutions? The difference is that innovative companies empathize with their customers in order to understand what the meaningful problem is. In addition, they foster a culture where people can think creatively and most importantly, commit the resources required to develop the right solution.
This is how Sugatsune has developed a reputation over its 90-year history for creating unique, high-quality hardware solutions, that continue to be successful for decades. One example is the range of dampening technology called Lapcon which was first introduced during a time when many wondered why they needed a toilet seat to soft-close. Recognizing the stress created by slamming in the bathroom, Sugatsune engineers developed a rotary damper that eliminated this discomfort. Developed in the late 1980’s, this product continues to sell for other applications and based on its success, served as a base for many other products in the line-up. In fact, Lapcon technology eventually made its way into the kitchen again when many wondered why they needed soft-closing cabinets; their doors closed just fine. But early in the 1990’s Sugatsune’s Quiet Home concept demonstrated life without slamming doors. Today, soft-closing cabinets have become the cost of entry in modern kitchens as more hardware manufactures follow, introducing various types of soft-closing hardware.
Why is it that companies like Sugatsune continue to innovate even after nine-decades? It is their ability to systematically and consistently find new ways to approach development of its products; whether it is a complexed door opening system or a simple magnetic catch. More importantly, it is the focus on understanding the challenges people face and the culture of supporting the development of practical solutions that will make their lives better.
A Simple Example of Innovation:
In the 1950’s Japan was witnessing a post-war industrial revolution. Several new manufacturing techniques and materials were being discovered and new products were being introduced to change the way people experienced life. During this time, Michio Sugasawara was also looking for new opportunities to expand the company’s product offerings. His father who was the original founder of Sugatsune always taught Michio to embrace inspiration and creativity in order to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Understanding that inspiration can come from anywhere, Michio would study several industries and visit factories unrelated to the furniture industry.
One evening at a restaurant, Michio watched several people use a coat hook and observed that many were damaging their garments while they were retrieving them. He remembered a visit to a manufacturer who had just discovered a new technique that allowed for the end of a wire to be rounded. At that time, this new method looked promising, but no one conceived of a way to use it. But for Michio, this became a solution. Seeing all these people struggling with removing their coats from the hook, he envisioned that the rounded end he saw earlier, at the top of the hook would prevent coats from being damaged, but he didn’t stop there.
He remembered a recent visit to a car manufacturer where he learned of a new material being used for their tailpipes, an iron-based alloy containing chromium called stainless steel. At the time, stainless steel in Japan was not a widely used material outside of the military and medical industries. But understanding that this material didn’t rust, Michio realized that he could make products that would stand the test of time. Better yet, stainless steel could be polished to improve its aesthetics and since it didn’t need to be plated, it would help alleviate the impact on the environment during production.
Of course, there were many challenges and risks in developing this new product especially since it was to be made from a relatively new material and with new manufacturing techniques. But just as his father believed, it is worth the commitment if the product you create is one that is unique and will make peoples’ lives better. This commitment forced Michio to develop a technique to thread, flange and shape a ball tip on a rod wire. Three innovative manufacturing techniques that are still used today.
A Recognized Design
As a result, Sugatsune became the first company to introduce a stainless-steel clothing hook that featured a ball shaped tip. The success of this design led to several more hooks with this feature and seven decades later, the ball shaped tip has become a univers
ally recognized design on hooks. This story is a testament to how innovation lives at the core of Sugatsune’s creative culture even for the simplest of products. The approach always starts with identifying the customers’ needs and then committing to develop solutions that create satisfaction and convenience for people. It is this approach that 90 years later, engineers inherently follow and one that has helped Sugatsune grow from a Japanese hardware distributor in 1930, to a global leading furniture, architectural and industrial hardware manufacture today.