Innovation: Make Something When You Don’t Have the Equipment

Sometimes I think we’re spoiled in this country (and I include myself in that sweeping generalization). For many companies, the solution to a problem is to throw money at it. Years ago, we had a plant that was faced with frequent absenteeism and drug test failures, a plant that created a lot of excess pollution and waste, a plant that needed nearly 140 people to produce 500 – 600 pieces of conduit per day.

The solution to fixing that plant was to basically knock it down and build a new one with all kinds of modern technology and automated equipment. We were able to quadruple our output while reducing our workforce to 20 people instead of 140.

It was a great solution because it solved so many problems for us, but it cost a lot of money.

And because I’m not a big believer in business debt, we were fortunate to be in a position where we didn’t have to take on any debt to make this all happen. We designed it, had it built, and equipped it with money we had on hand, and got some of the equipment through operating leases.

See what I mean about being spoiled?

I recently saw a video of several men in Thailand who were using the simplest of technology to drive a piling into the ground: two men balanced a plank on the head of a piling, while five other men climbed up on it. Then, they began to sing and stomp on the plank in rhythm. It drove the piling down in a matter of seconds, and (presumably) their only cost was the salary of the men and the cost of the plank.

(The video is in Thai, so you may not understand what they’re saying, but you can understand what’s happening.)

This low-tech method is not an uncommon method of working in developing nations. It shows that you can get things done faster, cheaper, and without a lot of expensive technology.

On the ruta 13, near Sena, Pando, Bolivia. In places like this, you have to rely on innovation more than equipment.
On the ruta 13, near Sena, Pando, Bolivia
A friend recently told me about the way remote roads are graded and cleared in places like Bolivia and Brazil. While the company owner could probably get a small bulldozer to manage most of the work, they will instead buy a dozen shovels and hire a dozen (mostly) men to do the actual digging, grading, and repairing of the roads.

That’s because in these countries like Bolivia, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines, they drive for full employment. They’ll forgo technology in favor of employing people.

That road grader in Bolivia, that really wasn’t a decision whether or not to buy the grader. The decision was that they could actually employ 12 people instead of one. Most developing countries have huge unemployment, so compromising the technology to utilize the human condition ensures people are employed and can feed their families. That’s a thing worth doing,

I remember the first time I ever went to Brazil, and was visiting Rio. I walked into the office building where my appointment was, and waited for the elevator. Eventually it arrived, the doors open, and what do I find but an elevator operator. He was sitting on a stool, wearing a uniform, and his job was to operate the elevator.

This wasn’t an old elevator where the operator would turn a crank and know where and when to pull it to get it stop at the right floor. You told him what floor you wanted and he pushed the button.

Of course, a modern elevator doesn’t need an operator, but in order to employ more people, this office building had an elevator operator. That in and of itself caused huge congestion, because normally elevators can be programmed to operate on their own. So the fact that he’s there with a chair taking up the space of two to four people means it will take you longer to get wherever you want to go. Every elevator load carried four fewer people, which meant you might need five loads instead of four to clear out the lobby.

The video clip above is an example of how people in rural developing areas don’t have access to the technology that we do in this country, but they know they have to have a foundation if they want to build a structure. So rather than going without or putting several people out of work just to have a shiny new pile driver, they solved their pile-driving problem by using the technology they had plenty of — people who could stomp in rhythm, and a solid plank.

It’s a creative idea, and sometimes I think we’re missing this kind of creativity in our own workplace.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, as well as speak at conferences, trade shows, and chambers of commerce. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.