A tale of water and innovation (oh, and baby vests too)

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

A few years ago, I bought a water machine. It’s plumbed into the mains water and dispenses 98 degree hot water and chilled filtered water at the touch of a button, and I love it. When you work at home, constantly filling the kettle and waiting for it to boil is tedious and annoying, and given that the machine was installed just before a heat wave, the chilled filtered water feature has been particularly welcome too.

After a while, I noticed that when it hadn’t been used for a while, the machine would go into sleep mode. This meant that instead of keeping the hot water tank at just below boiling temperature, it would let it drop down to around 60 degrees to save energy. Similarly, the cold water tank would stop chilling as well, although it wouldn’t get warm at the same rate as the hot one got cold, if you see what I mean (if I knew more about the laws of thermodynamics I’d probably know why, but I don’t. This Flanders and Swann song represents the limits of my knowledge, to be honest — but I digress.)

When you wake the machine up, it starts heating the hot water and chilling the cold water again. But here’s the thing — sometimes, you just want some cold water, and you’re not too fussed about how super-chilled it is. But to get cold water when the machine is in sleep mode you have to wake it up. This means that it’s heating the hot water tank when I only want a cold drink, which is a complete waste of energy.

I don’t know if they’ve changed this feature on the newer models, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. The reason I’m writing is this — when a nice man from the water machine company came to do something technical to it, I mentioned this to him. His response? ‘I know, it’s stupid isn’t it? They should change it, I’ve had so many customers telling me that!’

So let me get this straight: this company had a lot of customers who could see a potential improvement to the product. It had frontline staff who could see a potential improvement to the product AND knew that customers were asking for it. But did the company know about this potential improvement? Had anyone made it easy for those customers, or that repair man, to let the company know that this might be a good thing to do?

I had a similar experience many years ago when buying baby vests. On finding that the shop had run out of the 6 to 9 month size, I asked an assistant if they had any more. Her response was as follows: ‘No, we haven’t got any more. We always run out of that size first, it’s weird!’

There are all sorts of factors at play here and all sorts of things you can do to improve. Empowering your people to take the next logical step when faced with customer feedback (by increasing the order of 6 to 9 month size baby vests, for example). Making it really easy for customers to give you feedback — or even asking them for some. Creating a culture where ideas are welcomed from everyone in an organisation. But if I was to highlight one thing that all organisations should do when thinking about innovation, it’s to talk to the people that deal with your customers day in, day out. They might not realise that they’re sitting on an idea. It might be an idea that leads to a tiny improvement, or one that completely changes your business model. But unless you go and ask them, you’ll probably never know.

Originally published at Cecilia Unlimited.

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