Monday, July 6, 2009

Lessons from bagged salad

I attended a webinair last week given by Professor Ranjay Gulati of Harvard Business School. One of the great examples he spoke about was, of all things, bagged salad. Bagged salad is still one of the fastest growing food retail product lines, despite the e-coli scares of recent years. The convenience factor has been lauded by chefs and nutritionists alike for popularizing salads. In short, it is a great case study for innovation.

Professor Gulati told us that it was not the lettuce growers who had come up with this idea. "How did they miss this?", he asked, "How did they not see the bagged opportunity coming?". His answer was that they were too busy asking their customers how good they thought their lettuce tasted. Too busy with their Salad Net Promotor Scores.

The message to the audience was plain. Don't be blinded by your existing business. Don't rely on metrics that measure how satisfied your customers are with your existing products. If you do, you risk missing opportunities around your product. Study how your customers use your products and always be on the look out for new ways to deliver or package what you produce.

I think this is very valuable advice. Learning how your customers use your products is a great way to discover new opportunities for product development.

I was intrigued by the bagged salad though. I mean putting food in bags seems really obvious. How could anyone not see that coming, however lettuce-obsessed they were? So I turned to Google to find out how bagged lettuce was invented.

It turns out that (of course) if you put pieces of lettuce in an ordinary plastic bag it will rot very quickly. Fine for the trip home from the grocer, no good for shipping and storage. Once lettuce is cut, it consumes oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide, water and heat. Left in the open air it will consume oxygen until it rots away completely. Keeping lettuce fresh requires a bag that will regulate the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels inside the bag.

I could not find out who first had the idea, but people were experimenting already back in 1960's. Nothing worked well enough. Lettuce is very sensitive to wilting and the plastic bag technology just wasn't good enough. It worked for delivery to fast food chains but shelf life was too short for retail sales channels.

Not until 1980 that is. It took almost twenty years to develop a plastic film that was breathable and that was machinable into bags. Along the way they also learned how to fill the bag with nitrogen to lower oxygen and extend shelf life.

Twenty years of research and development to make the idea of bagged salad real.

I like this untold part of Professor Gulati's story. It is similar to the Personalized M&M's I have written about before. The same dogged determination to figure out how to solve the problem. The same kind of technology breakthrough that made it finally possible. The same belief that this the problem could be solved, no matter what people said.

Just in case you are thinking that bagged salad has nothing at all to do with publishing, let me remind you of how it all started. The breakthrough that finally brought printing to the world was the availability of cheap paper. Before that the printing press was an academic experiment: What use was a cheap way to print if paper was prohibitively expensive? If Gutenberg or Caxton were alive today and working in the corporate world, their ideas would never make it past a Dragon's Den, let alone a business case review board!

There's no doubt in my mind that customer insight is key to innovation. Seeing things that customers think or do that no-one else has seen before. Realizing that people like to eat lettuce but that many people find it a pain to wash and prepare. We have great techniques nowadays, such as ethnographic studies, to help us do this and we have user experience experts to help us do it.

That only takes us so far, as the M&M people found out, the lettuce folks learnt and Gutenberg discovered as well. Believing that your team can solve something no-one else has ever solved before is at least as important as the insights that led you to see the problem in the first place.

Never forget that innovation requires dogged determination and sheer hard work. Or as Guy Kawasaki wrote in Rules for Revolutionaries: "create like a god, command like a king, and work like a slave".

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