Justin Fox is the latest pundit to ring the “innovation ain’t what it used to be” bell. “Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century,” he writes, summing up the argument, “the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live.” Fox has a lot of company. He points to sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who worries that the Internet, far from spurring a great burst of creativity, may have actually put innovation “on hold for a generation.” Fox also cites economist Tyler Cowen, who has argued that, recent techno-enthusiasm aside, we’re living in a time of innovation stagnation. He could also have mentioned tech powerbroker Peter Thiel, who believes that large-scale innovation has gone dormant and that we’ve entered a technological “desert.” Thiel blames the hippies: Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.
YKK is a fantastic story. While not completely analogous, it reminds me of the way Apple goes after its markets. Read the following quote and consider how Apple retains control of its own means of maintaining quality and innovation:
Founded by Tadao Yoshida in Tokyo in 1934, YKK stands for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha (which roughly translates as Yoshida Company Limited). The young Yoshida was a tinkerer who designed his own customized zipper machines when he wasn’t satisfied with existing production methods. One by one, Yoshida brought basically every stage of the zipper making process in house: A 1998 Los Angeles Times story reported that YKK “smelts its own brass, concocts its own polyester, spins and twists its own thread, weaves and color-dyes cloth for its zipper tapes, forges and molds its scooped zipper teeth …” and on and on. YKK even makes the boxes it ships its zippers in. And of course it still manufactures its own zipper-manufacturing machines—which it carefully hides from the eyes of competitors. With every tiny detail handled under YKK’s roof, outside variables get eliminated and the company can assure consistent quality and speed of production. (When the Japanese earthquake hit last year many supply chains were shredded, but YKK kept rolling along.)