Eight Lessons from "Mr. K"

My mentor, Founder of Roland Corporation Ikutaro Kakehashi

My first mentor, founder of Roland and Roland DG Corporations, Ikutaro Kakehashi, passed away earlier this April at age 87. Known as Mr. K in the musical instrument industry, he was a great Japanese visionary in the digitalization of musical instruments in the 1980’s and understood better than most the changes brought about by the Third Industrial Revolution.

Before I share what I learned from him, let me share Mr. K's accomplishments. Before the Fourth Industrial Revolution of IoT, AI, and Big Data, there was the Third Industrial Revolution, the "advancement of technology from analog electronic and mechanical devices to digital technology." Mr. K helped in that transformation of music from analog to digital. When the international media (BBC, Fortune, The Guardian, ABC News, The Washington Post) reported the sad news of his passing, they reviewed his contributions to the music world. Mr. K received a Grammy in 2013 for his contributions to the world of electronic music along with Dave Smith (founder of synthesizer company Sequential Circuits), who said, “He was just an amazing man, a good friend, a very good competitor and just innovative all that time.” In addition to driving the global communication standard among MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) instruments with Smith, his creations changed the world of music, including the TR-808 drum machine and the TB-303 synthesizer, which kicked off the electronic music movements and were used by Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and Krafwerk. Since then, Roland products have represented a milestone in the evolution of music. Their electronic music instruments and studio equipment formed part of the musical success of Marvin Gaye, Soft Cell, Tangerine Dream, The Human League, Jean-Michael Jarre, Herbie Hancock, Prince, Sting, Andy Summers, Phil Collins, Oscar Peterson, Pat Metheny, Kanye West and Mr. K’s much admired friend, Ray Charles. Many computer games, including Apple products, make sounds derived from the SC-55 Sound Canvas, the first MIDI sound module. As a result, Mr. K was inducted into Hollywood’s Rock Walk of Fame (2000) and awarded an honorary doctorate by Berklee College of Music (1991) for redefining the world of modern music, along with the inventor of the modern synthesizer, Bob Moog.

Mr. K even played a part in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, by focusing on the innovation of cyber-physical interfaces and through the development of sensors and digital processors, made formidable man-machine interfaces that are part of the the revolution's enabling technologies.

Mr. K set up Roland Corporation in 1971 and Roland DG in 1981 in Osaka, both of which later moved to Hamamatsu. Both companies are still leaders in their respective sectors, Roland DG lead by Masahiro Tomioka. I had the great fortune to join the company in 1985 at the age of 24, growing alongside the company but above all learning from his cutting edge vision of business. And more than a visionary and innovative engineer, Mr. K was a global leader who had an equally trailblazing vision in Management and Business Transformation in their evolution to today’s digitalization. Indeed, he was a great business philosopher. I’d like to take this opportunity to recall some of his thoughts he informally shared with us in the company’s early years and which are studied these days in business schools, managing competencies that are essential to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

1. Every change brings an opportunity

Mr. K was a big driver of change. His view was that every change presented an opportunity. He would say that “change and chance” only differ by one letter: it is up to you to choose and know how to find this opportunity. He was so true to this innovative attitude that in 2013, at the incredible age of 83 and with his health, though overflowing as always, beginning to wane, he set up the new digital video-audio devices company, ATV Corporation, pioneering new fields with digital audio and video creative innovations.

2. Be the best, rather than the biggest

Instead of pursuing growth at any cost or falling into the trap of commodification, Mr. K encouraged everyone to be the best in everything they did. His vision of developing activities in market niches through digital solutions also entailed being market leader, which guaranteed above-market growth and kept the company’s competitive muscle still strong even today.

3. We live in an age with no samples

We live in an era of constant change. We can’t rest on the laurels of success or rely on past references. We must learn from our clients. Rather than emerging from R&D departments, true evolution comes from our clients who share with us their creativity and future needs.

4. Co-creation

By involving clients from the outset in the product development phase—including many of the musicians mentioned above, who passed through Roland’s R&D centre in Hamamatsu to create new sounds and instruments—Mr. K was one of the first drivers of co-creation—something that seems new now, but has always been familiar to us at Roland. This led the company to building a reputation of developing “friendly” products that were incredibly easy to use and highly reliable. He used to say: “users don’t know technological limitations, but inspire us to follow new paths.”

5. Learn from mistakes

We should learn more from mistakes than successes. Learn from errors. In moments of crisis, Mr. K always looked for a way to get something positive from the experience, taking into account the emotional factor by involving people. After navigating our way through a particularly severe crisis Roland had experienced, he told me: “We’ve learned from the experience, now reset the past and work for the future,” meaning that we should leave the negative emotional baggage behind us that had built up during that critical period.

6. Co-petition

The development of MIDI was a clear example of Mr. K's vision of collaborating with competitors. He openly collaborated with Dave Smith from Sequential Circuits in the development of the MIDI, connecting for the first time two keyboards from different companies: a Prophet 600 analogue synthesizer and a Roland JP-6. They openly invited other companies in the industry, including Korg, Kawai and Yamaha, to participate in this networked communication standard. Their futuristic vision did not end there: they also invited the personal computer industry, still in its infancy. MIDI features were adapted to several early computer platforms, including Apple II PlusIIeMacintoshCommodore 64AmigaAtari STAcorn Archimedes, and PC DOS.

7. Glocal: Think global, act local

From the company’s outset, Mr. K designed an organization in which the different perspectives of global and local could come together and understand each other to create new value. He often said, “The customers are local and want to have relationships with local people. Our people in different countries know the market. The market is not an abstract entity—it’s formed by people, customers and competitors, who act in different ways according to their countries and cultures.” True to his glocal vision of local executives’ empowerment, the decision-making power enjoyed by the President and CEOs—which I had the opportunity to enjoy in my first ‘local’ stage of my career in Spain—was great, as was the peer-to-peer communication between the executives of each country. This enabled the creation of strong distribution channels that were made all the more highly competitive by adapting them to each setting and enabling success cases to be quickly shared—a strength of the company’s for many years that allows it to stay at the top even in times of economic turmoil.

8. Listen to the young, for they are the next leaders

Every time he visited a country, Mr. K had a habit of having an informal dinner with local staff to share his vision. When doing so, he would invite the newest recruit to sit next to him so that he could listen to their ideas. Veteran staff, familiar with this custom, delighted in seeing surprise on the new recruit’s face as Mr. K approached and invited them to sit beside him at the place of honor. I still remember with affection and admiration the first time he invited me to sit next to him in a dining room with about fifty people from the company. I was 26 years old and for a moment I froze. He said, “Come and sit next to me. We’re incredibly proud that you have joined the Roland family and I’d like to hear your views.” Once seated and the formalities completed, he asked me, “Are you happy to be with us? What can we do to make you happy?" One of the slogans Mr. K coined was “cooperative enthusiasm for all stakeholders." Since then, I have asked both employees and customers the same two questions. Now I ask my students the same in business school. Later, at Harvard Business School, where the company took me, that phrase “People First” sounded very familiar: “make your people happy and they will make your customers happy.” 

In addition to being a visionary engineer and great entrepreneur, Mr. K put people and customers at the heart of strategy. He made technology at their service and for their enjoyment.

Thank you, Mr. K. Allow me in this crisis that your loss represents to not reset the past.

Photo credits: ATV Corporation

PAGE
TOP