Blog Moving to New Site

September 28th, 2008

We have consolidated the 2 SAC blogs into a single one titled “Creativity & Analogy Blog”.

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How Seagate Technology Re-invented The Company By Studying A Watchmaker

October 11th, 2007

Seagate Microdrives everywhere…almost 

In 1999, Steve Luczo, CEO of Seagate Technology, “faced an epic crisis.”[1]He has already out-sourced large portions of the manufacturing of disc drives to low-labor-cost countries. Seagate was, at the time, the largest private employer in Thailand. But Luzco foresaw that as disc drives become miniaturized, there will come a day when such drives would be too difficult for human hands to assemble. He therefore launched a “factory of the future” initiative with the intent of manufacturing drives with virtually no touch of the human hands.


At the time, it was not clear exactly how such a factory can be designed and built. In the entire disc-drive industry, the paradigmatic manufacturing approach was based on dexterous human hands – it was believed that only humans can have the dexterity and smarts to accommodate disc drives of different sizes and designs.


A reasonable approach to solve this problem would be for Luczo to assign the problem to his research/engineering staff who might take years to develop a viable automation solution. Fortunately, the assignment went to an in-house engineer named Doug DeHaan.  DeHaan initiated a series of visits to different leading-edge factories in other industries. One of these was a factory belonging to Seiko, the Japanese watchmaker.

As described in G. Pascal Zachary’s article:

“There, DeHaan’s team saw something startling: Though Seagate’s manufacturing gurus liked to think a disc drive was too delicate for robots to handle, Seiko was making wristwatches–even more delicate–on automated lines. Convinced that full automation could work for Seagate, DeHaan showed top management a film of Seiko’s factory floor as part of his recommendation on how to proceed.

Luczo embraced the Seiko lesson and forged ahead with automation. Today, at Seagate’s factories in Asia, each assembly line pumps out about 20,000 iPod Mini-style drives a day. Five years ago the company’s factories required 600 people on 20 lines to produce that many drives. Now two material handlers and one technician can do the job. And with no humans touching drives as they’re built, there’s less chance for electrostatic shock, a primary cause of defects. Five years ago, out of every 1 million drives Seagate made, 10,000 arrived dead at customers’ doors. Today the dead rate is down to 200 per million. “

In hindsight, the borrowing of ideas from a watchmaker when your problem is how to make a miniature precision machine seems to be very obvious and intuitively simple; where else would one go? In practice, it is not as easy as it sounds. In this case, what allowed DeHaan to have this insight was mainly due to his decision to study how other industries solve such problems. He would not had the idea had he not first allow himself to be open to ideas from a totally different industry. His genius is in this crucial step, purposely going out of his way to study how other industries tackle such issues. For while the automation of the manufacturing of a miniature machine is a never-solved problem in the disc drive industry, it is an already digested problem in the watchmaking industry. The reason is pretty simple, necessity is the mother of invention. The watchmaking industry was forced by need to develop an automation line but the disc drive industry was not, that is, until now. So, what can be perceived as insurmountable difficulties in one industry can be standard practice in another. What is important in this case is the act DeHaan took in reaching out to study other industries.


To do this, he first has to become open to ideas from anywhere, then he has to make a real effort to go out and seek the information, a process that often has a low yield.  Finally, he has to accept that what works in another industry can also work in his and be daring enough to propose to his top management such an outlandish idea. But, because it has already been demonstrated to be working in the watchmaking industry, he should have had a much easier time proposing using the same idea for the disc drive industry.


Such is the advantage of using a structured analogy approach.

[1] “Invasion of the Gadget Snatchers”, by G. Pascal Zachary, Business 2.0, p. 49-51, May 2005.

Insight from a basketball analogy

September 22nd, 2007

This is an interesting post on using an analogy to obtain business insight:

Ancient Analogy, Ancient Innovation

September 21st, 2007

Without doubt, in the annals of human history, the invention of a new system of writing is definitively an example of radical innovation. There is an interesting story of how the Chinese writing system, consisting of square pictograms, were invented more than four thousand years ago. It was arguably the first historically-recorded example of bio-mimicry that resulted in an invention.

Like other cultures, ancient Chinese used strings and tied knots for recording dates and events. Later, they started to put  scratches in wooden pieces or carved signs on tortoise shells. These efforts, over millenniums, did not resulted in a clear system of writing until the time of the first Chinese king, Huang-ti. 

A court official, named “Changjie” was charged with the task of developing a system of words that can be used through the tribal kingdom that was ancient China. We can conjectured that he must have collected samples of writings that existed then and thought hard about coming up with a system. History recorded that Chngjie’s invention came to him when he was examining a tortoise shell that has been used for recording words. As he pondered, it occurred to him that there are natural patterns on the shell that can be grouped. Aha!  So the new system is a series of stylized patternes!

This bit of insight led to the invention of the Chinese system of characters that are analoguos in style to the patterns on top of a tortoise shell. In this case, indeed, the rest is history.

We can imagine that Changjie must have thought long and hard about what should have been the answer to his problem. Looking at the patterns on the shell gave him the inspiration. No, he did not copy the patterns. Instead, he copied the concept that a series of linked scribbles can represent a word. This was truly a conceptual analogical mapping example.

My telling of this story is to illustrate that analogical mapping is a most natural, human thinking process – even as ancient as a 4000 year old innovation.  Even till today, Changjie’s accomplishment is recognized by naming the new system of computerized Chinese input method after him. 

The Dvorak “Jazz Factor”

September 14th, 2007

In PC Magazine (Vol 26, No.16) I came across an interesting analogy between the computer industry and the automobile industry.

Written by John Dvorak, he had the following to say:

“The computer industry is often compared with the automobile industry, but it has missed the entire “concept car” idea. Every so often one company or another will design cool concept computers that can wow the crowd, but in general this is not the norm.

What I find weird is that creating a jazzy futuristic machine just to play with ideas is a lot cheaper to do with computers than with cars. A concept car can cost millions of dollars to design and build, yet it’s an institution in the auto industry. In the computer business, a concept machine is seldom promoted to the general public. The closest we come to institutionalizing such a notion are the case-mod designs that individuals build. The equivalent in the auto industry is the hot rod or the custom car business.

With these thoughts in mind, I looked over what Intel has been up to recently with a number of futuristic performance claims, all of which lacked the auto-industry pizzazz. Imagine going to one of the major car shows and, instead of seeing cool new cars, just getting to see the motors. Sigh.”

Dvorak’s insightful comments are a beautiful example of how an analogy between industries can lead to innovative ideas.

Something that is an “institution” in one industry (i.e., concept cars in the automobile industry) can be turned into an groundbreaking innovation when ported into a different industry (i.e., concept computers in the computer industry).

Mark Cuban uses analogy to come up with an out-of-the-box idea for the real estate industry

August 13th, 2007

The recent subprime mortgage crisis has enticed many people to think about the difficult issues in the residential mortgage business and seek a better solution. Today, Mark Cuban just proposed such a radical, creative idea in his blog entry: Solution for the Real Estate Market ? Take Your House Public ?”

Mark Cuban, of course, is the well-known, highly-successful entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks who has also been known as one with many ideas. While he admits in his blog that he has no direct knowledge and does not understand the details of the real estate business, he was able to come up with this very original idea of treating your house as a public company so that it can be publicly financed and traded; just like selling stocks in a company. In a short proposal, he has taken an approach, selling stocks to the public, that has already worked in one industry and applied it to a completely different industry, the real estate industry. Not only is the new idea easily digested by the readers, as evidenced by the comments to the blog article. He can also write about the idea easily because he can use languages that are already know in the financial industry to explain the new idea.

This is a prime example of how one industry’s approach can be applied analogically to another industry, resulting in what most people would consider as a radical and creative solution to an age old problem. What is also interesting is that the comments on the idea showed how easily readers not only easily grasp the gist of the idea but that they can also fill in the details and even suggest implementation schemes.

The more interesting question for us is this: Does it take a very unique thinker such as Mark Cuban to come up with such an idea? Or, can any one else think of it? One reader, Jeff Lewis, wrote in the comments that this was already thought of by Drew Myers in his blog: Virtual Housing Stock Market – Zillow API Idea #1 . So, once the analogy is invoked, it can seem quite obvious when in fact, it was not. It took Cuban and Myers who purposely invoked the analogy to make the solution seem real and workable. We believe that is the characteristics of a structured analogy process.

Traditional vs. Structured Use of Analogy in Corporations

July 30th, 2007

In today’s (July 30, 2007) Wall Street Journal, page A2, Timothy Appel reported on the increasingly ominous prospects of the US auto industry suppliers. But buried within the reporting is an interesting paragraph on how innovation occurs in large corporations:

“Another implication of the shift for the American auto industry is that many of those manufacturers have large research and development budgets that, in the past, let them transfer expertise and innovation among their diverse businesses. A breakthrough in developing tougher glass for airplanes, for instance, might be applied to cars.”

What has been going on in corporations is that often, only R&D has been charged with coming up with innovations. In today’s multi-faceted innovative environment, new ideas can arise from anywhere, by any department. The interesting ‘for instance’ in the article shows that ideas that are common place in the airplane industry could very well be analogically applied to the auto industry. This cross industry idea, I believe, has occurred to many executives and researchers. But, because in most cases, these are just fleeting and intriguing thoughts; nothing much concrete actions will result. That is, tougher glass in airplanes do not always lead to tougher glass in autos.

What is needed is a systematic way to make these ideas occur to decision makers in corporations naturally. That is the mission that we at Structured Analogy Consultants have charged ourselves with. We want to introduce a new, structured approach to use analogy so that more tougher glasses get from airplanes to autos.