Hard-Learned Wisdom from the Wizard of Menlo Park
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Thomas Edison was the greatest innovator to ever walk the earth. He brought the future to life not only with his inventions but by revolutionizing the processes and facilities that led to their creation. Even after a century and a half, his vision still guides the innovators of the modern world, and today’s manufacturers can gain a great deal from his experiences, both good and bad. Here are a few fundamental lessons we can learn from our beloved Menlo Park Wizard:
1) Success often means learning what NOT to do
Edison once famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully discovered 10,000 ways that don’t work.” With no blueprints or predecessors, he relied on good old-fashioned trial and error for many of his accomplishments. Pioneers have always had to build their own roads, whether they are exploring a new continent or developing a new product. Your road to manufacturing excellence may encounter some impasses that require a detour or some backtracking. Be prepared for the inevitable roadblock by incorporating flexibility and agility into your business plan.
Fortunately, New Jersey manufacturers have the power of experience on their side. NJMEP offers business consulting, process improvement, and workforce training solutions, and help businesses tap into a vast knowledge base of manufacturing best practices that will help them avoid roadblocks and seek out the best path to follow toward specific goals.
2) First-to-market is not always best-in-market
Although he is known as a groundbreaker and innovator, Edison’s greatest successes were achieved by modifying and improving existing products. The electric light bulb was already being developed when Edison first set up shop in his research laboratory, and other companies had produced working prototypes. But most of these required expensive metals and ideal lab environments in order to work properly. In contrast, Edison’s company focused on creating a practical, marketable product that could be mass-produced economically and used by consumers in their own homes. He set to work on the problem by starting with existing technology and experimenting with new materials that could be readily acquired and incorporated into the manufacturing process. The rest, as they say, is history. In most cases, your innovation will come not by leaps and bounds, but by carefully measured steps. To keep moving forward and build a better mousetrap, seek out ways you can micro-innovate to refine your products and processes.
Adopting methodologies like Six Sigma and Lean manufacturing can give you the edge in developing better products and better ways to make them. There is training available in these disciplines and more. Working with the right partners makes it easier to take the next step toward market leadership.
3) Don’t undervalue your employees
Edison was able to assemble a team comprised of some of the world’s best minds in engineering and research, especially after his early successes. This included a brilliant young man by the name of Nikola Tesla, who emigrated from Europe to work at the Menlo Park laboratory. Tesla brought a new perspective and fresh ideas, including plans for a promising new electrical power format. Alternating current, as he called it, provided safe, efficient power that could be sent over long distances by dedicated electrical lines. But Edison did not share Tesla’s enthusiasm and dismissed the concept as inferior to his own DC power system. This proved to be one of the costliest mistakes of his career (and a valuable lesson for the rest of us).
Tesla eventually left the company and sold his new idea to Edison’s direct competitor, George Westinghouse. The moral of the story: the next best thing might be right under your nose. Nobody knows the ins and outs of your business better than the people who run it every day. Establish rapport and lines of communication with your workforce that will encourage ideas and allow for direct feedback.
A dedicated and engaged workforce is vital to manufacturers. Exploring the variety of business communication and leadership courses designed to help you foster a culture of idea sharing and two-way dialogue can go such a long way toward improving the bottom line.
4) Don’t look past your competition
After George Westinghouse acquired the rights to AC power, Edison made his second big mistake. He was so convinced that his product was superior that he engaged in a massive smear campaign of AC power, spending vast amounts of money and resources trying to discredit his competitor’s product. He eventually lost the “Current War”, and he would live long enough regret his mistake, as Westinghouse’s AC power became the world standard. Remember that today’s competitors could be tomorrow’s partners if you keep an open mind and open eyes to see how you can learn from like-minded companies in your market sector.
A vast network of New Jersey manufacturers, associations, and business experts are readily looking to collaborate and can recognize and capitalize on synergies between similar companies. Leverage these networks and always work to build lasting partnerships.
5) Just because you CAN build it doesn’t mean you SHOULD
For each one of his famous inventions, Edison had an almost equally infamous one. One of his earlier developments was an automated vote tallying machine designed for and marketed to houses of legislature. Perhaps in a portent of things to come, the machine was roundly rejected as unreliable, impractical, and invasive. It was a wake-up call for the young inventor. Edison had been so focused on the development of the machine that he neglected to develop a market for it.
Branding and market research experts give you the resources you need to find the consumers that are looking for your product. You can start with a complimentary Business Assessment of your current marketing mix and product line.
Above all else, Edison believed in the power of hard work and due diligence. Even after he became a household name and made millions from his work, he could still be found at any hour of the day in his lab with his sleeves rolled up and his hands caked with soot or grease from his latest endeavor. Maybe your company won’t change the world, but with the right mix of inspiration and perspiration, you can make a lasting mark, and become another New Jersey success story.