Cracking The Innovation Code

Sometimes Breaking Through Means Breaking A Few Rules

18 December, 2019 // This month, the world lost one of the most important supply chain pioneers you probably never heard of when George Laurer III died at 94. 

As an engineer at IBM in the early 1970s, Laurer invented the basic barcode. In doing so, he also provided a lesson in transformational thinking that we’d all be well served to consider.

The idea for barcodes didn't begin with Laurer. IBM had been experimenting with scannable codes since at least the 1940s when one of its engineers overheard  a grocery executive and a Drexel Institute professor discussing ways to automate the checkout process. But, after initial testing IBM researchers had focused their efforts on target-shaped designs. These circular codes proved vulnerable to errors whenever printers smudged the image. 

Laurer became convinced that a series of tall, variable-width bars would be much more resilient: A smear on one part of the bar still leaves it intact above and below. When his manager disagreed, Laurer waited for the boss to go on vacation and then defied orders. 

“I struggled a day or two, but my nature and training would not allow me to support something I did not believe in,” Laurer wrote in his self-published memoir, Engineering Was Fun. “I simply went against my manager’s instruction and set out to design a better system.”

Later, he remembered the thrill of that breakthrough moment in an interview with a local TV news reporter at WRAL. “When we were doing it, I never expected it to be anything like this,” Laurer said. “When I watch these clerks zipping the stuff across the scanners, I keep thinking to myself, ‘It can’t work that well.’ ”

Grocers first used Laurer’s design in 1973. It quickly spread as an identification, price and tracking code on objects all over the world. It also revolutionized the supply chain world of warehousing and transit. 

To be sure, many engineers contributed to the barcode invention: Bernard Silver, who first heard the idea; Norman Joseph Woodland, who translated his Boy Scout experience with Morse Code dots and dashes into the barcode’s thick and thin lines; and others. Still, their insights needed Laurer’s insurrection in order to become practical.

So often in business, large-scale progress comes from different thinking—digging deeply, asking questions and being open to new ideas instead of just following the accepted wisdom. That mindset drives the transportation transformations Morgan has designed for the world’s leading outsource manufacturing supply chains. We're not saying we approve of going behind your boss's back. But sometimes a great idea needs a radically new approach.

Happy holidays to you all. We look forward to more opportunities to work together in 2020—and to the challenge of finding new ways to radically transform quality and efficiency.

 


 

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