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Pursuing innovation beyond everything else ultimately makes us poorer, less safe and—ironically—less innovative.

Maintenance, Not Innovation, Is Most Important

Oct. 4, 2021
What if all this emphasis on 'moving fast and breaking things' in fact hurts the long-term viability of many companies?

For many in the business world, continuous improvement and innovation are each viewed as vital to corporate survival and success: the highest and noblest of all goals. In regard to innovation, a seemingly ever-changing marketplace mandates that leaders must be able to adapt and come up with new solutions to confront new realities. And, what better ways to accomplish this than forward-thinking and constant experimentation?

At one level, Silicon Valley’s mantra of “moving fast and breaking things” makes sense. Change is inevitable, and Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” never seems far away.

Yet what if all this emphasis on innovation and managing disruption in fact hurts the long-term viability of many companies? This is the argument made in the compelling book The Innovation Illusion, by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell.

As the authors detail, innovation, and the hype around it, are everywhere. You can’t escape it. Whether it is a truly new development or merely the repackaging of an existing commodity, nearly every product today is promoted as being “cutting edge,” “disruptive,” “transformative,” or something similar. Vinsel and Russell argue that pursuing innovation beyond everything else ultimately makes us poorer, less safe and—ironically—less innovative.

What most often gets left out of this relentless pursuit of innovation, they argue, is the element of maintenance.

Neither sexy nor glamorous, it is maintenance that provides the stable foundation for a company—and society—on which to sustain itself.

Nature shows us that Darwin’s observation of the fittest species are not the strongest or even most adaptable. Instead, it is those species that demonstrate deep stability which endure. In other words, the “fittest” are those that are the most stable (well-maintained). In the end, it is maintenance that sustains success.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the real essential work often comes in the form of maintenance. Zoom workers can’t function if their wi-fi signal is weak or the electricity is not working. Shelves remain empty if there are not folks to drive and service the trucks, unload them and do the stocking. Cleaning staff are critical, as well as the nursing home and hospital workers who take care of our loved ones.

Looking ahead, it is clear the current supply-chain nightmare will only get worse until the huge backlog of demand is finally put to rest. Until then, the system will have to squeeze out every bit of efficiency it can from the existing infrastructure. Maintenance will be how this happens.

All the slack that was in the supply chain prior to the arrival of the pandemic is now gone. There will be no greater number of ships, containers, trains, miles of track, trucks, drivers, or roads next year than there are right now. Maintaining the current global supply chain network is the only way to keep the system from collapsing on itself.

If this is true, and maintenance is so important, ask yourself this question: Why, then, do we treat the people who do such work so poorly?

Why do so many companies actively seek out “idea people” and value them over the maintainers?

Why is pay regularly lower for maintainers than other “professional” employees?

In schools, why are STEM and college constantly pushed on kids over a career in maintenance and trades?

Some things to think about the next time you have a leak, break, shutdown, or the trash needs to be collected.

Andrew R. Thomas, Ph.D., is associate professor of marketing and international business at the University of Akron; and, a member of the Core Faculty at the International School of Management in Paris. He is a bestselling business author/editor, whose 23 books include: American Shale Energy and the Global Economy: Business and Geopolitical Implications of the Fracking Revolution, The Customer Trap: How to Avoid the Biggest Mistake in Business, Global Supply Chain Security, The Final Journey of the Saturn V, and Soft Landing: Airline Industry Strategy, Service and Safety.

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