Many of us have grown up thinking that innovation is something special or complicated, something belonging to the realms of advanced technology, science or R&D – a process having something to do with discovering a new moon, making advancements in genomic research or writing the code for the next generation of satellites ready to explore the universe.
Japanese popular wisdom, however, has often proven otherwise.
Ever since its inauguration in 1964 (just two decades after the end of WWII), the high-speed railway shinkansen bullet train in Japan has never ceased to amaze. Running at speeds over 300 km/hour, there are at least 323 shinkansen trains carrying approximately 1,000 passengers each, every single day of the week. Ever since the beginning, shinkansen engineers have had to consider a wide variety of difficulties, ranging from sound pollution to earthquakes, snow and uneven terrain.
Recently, another intriguing aspect of shinkansen operations has been attracting the attention of the world. It is the so-called “The 7-Minute Miracle,” the very process of cleaning up each train between one journey and another, run by TESSEI operators. They have been taking the simple process of cleaning up the trains to the levels of art and science, creating a whole new textbook benchmark for innovation, teamwork and efficiency.
This process has recently been selected as a required course for all the 900 students enrolled in the Harvard Business School MBA program as a stated of the art example of motivation engineering and efficiency.
Although kneeling down in a public train toilet and polishing it clean to perfection is not really an inviting thought to many, the TESSEI operators have managed to take this 7-minute process to a whole new dimension, demonstrating a healthy amount of dedication, leadership and pride.
Innovation Is a Mindset
Innovation does not happen when we are all seated behind computer screens, searching for an answer, a hint or a solution. Rather, it is a mindset required for anyone living and breathing modern civilization. It comes with the genuine intention of making the world a better place, creating value for the society, the organizations we belong to, the people we work with and the clients we serve. It comes with the desire and commitment to make any space, service or opportunity better than it was before we came into contact with it. People in Japan call this kaizen (improvement, betterment) and kids are raised hearing this word as part of daily conversation. There is nothing special about it. It is just a mindset, often taken for granted, but probably one of the main engines of growth and sustainability the archipelago has ever known.
Innovation Doesn’t Need Qualifications
It all begins with careful observation – observation of the world around, our daily realities, what is happening to us and how we all impact our surroundings in return. Then comes prototyping – testing each idea at a time, giving it a body and meaning. Many ideas may never go beyond this stage, but those which do will serve the world and their creators through the value they bring.
Innovation is a simple process. It does not require any advanced skills or special authority. It is a process which can be trained through enhanced awareness, education and experience. It is not about business models no one else can achieve. It is about creating meaningful progress by doing what others don’t or by seeing reality from an all new different perspective.
The TESSEI operators started redesigning the cleaning process and the customer experience from ground 0: the customer needs and their train riding experience. Here’s what they did:
1. They decided to use one towel for table tops and a separate towel for windows. Why? They felt using a towel for a coffee drip or stray rice kernels on a surface so close to the next passenger’s face was an unmannerly behavior.
2. They re-designed the broom from single stick traditional style to a funky retractable. Why? A retractable broom can fit in the bag and free up the hands. It also has the benefit of hiding dirt and dust from the next passenger ready to board the train on a fresh new adventure.
3. They have seating arrangements in the team space under the tracks to encourage transparency and cross team communication. Why? To build a good team, they believe customer focus and the removal of cliques is the only way to go.
4. They wear Aloha shirts in summer and have a cute little mascot named Chiritori (meaning “clean up rubbish,” a play on words as tori also means bird). Why? They’ve miraculously turned what used to be considered a “three-K” job (kitsui: hard), kiken: dangerous), kitanai: dirty), into a fun and friendly hospitality job. The team enjoys interactions with guests and wants to let people know that efficient, fast and perfectly clean is an achievable, sustainable state.
Innovation Is Not Only About Tangible Products or Services
Innovation does not relate only to products or services. Great innovation can be found in operations, process, the way business is carried out and the architectures we create for our organizations, the way we inspire and motivate our colleagues, friends and families.
Innovation is about all the meaningful realities we are committed to create. Good intentions always lead to great ideas and Japan is a country where great ideas are always welcome.