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Innovation spotlight: Q&A with John Kim and John Harter

By Pacific National
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Creative ideas don't have to be overly complex, as explained by the winners of our 2015 Switch On Innovation Challenge.

Our annual Switch On Innovation Challenge was as competitive as ever this year. Employees across all of our business units showed that there’s a huge amount of innovation through the company, and tapping into that creativity can certainly present game changing ideas.

To that end, the eventual, worthy winners of the 2015 award were John Kim and John Harter from Pacific National’s business improvement team. Their idea centered on the development of a Driver Performance Program, which introduced black box-like technology into our trains.

Ultimately, by relaying information back to drivers, the system has potential to offer benefits ranging from improvements in efficiency to increased safety. We recently caught up with the two Johns to find out more about their experiences, and gain insight into how innovation at Asciano is affecting them:

“What I appreciated most was the investment in innovation from senior management.”

You were lucky enough to be crowned winners of the Switch On Innovation Challenge. Can you describe what the process was like?

John Harter: It was quite a long process, with the entire journey leading up to winning the award taking around 12 months. We started off fairly slowly and realised that we were on to something that had the potential to be significant for the business and also for us from a personal development perspective. The idea gained momentum, and the first inkling that we could end up winning the award was when John (Kim) went to Melbourne and pitched in front of leaders from across the business.

The night of the Thank You Initiative Awards was a wonderful opportunity to receive the honour in a room full of the who’s who of Asciano, and it was an evening full of pride.

John Kim: Adding to what John Harter said, what I appreciated was the time invested in the Innovation Challenge from senior management. It wasn’t just one of those processes that ran for the sake of it. Asciano CEO John Mullen and the Senior Leadership Team were very engaged on the day and it was clear that they were trying to foster innovative ideas to the point where the company’s employees think outside the box as a matter of course.

How important do you believe innovation is across the workplace? How has having an open mind to innovation helped in your roles?

JK: For us in business improvement, innovation is very important. We are one of the teams that are tasked with working ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business and it is a really challenging environment. Having the company support an innovative approach and foster new ideas is important in continually remaining competitive in the industry.

JH: When you go about solving problems and coming up with new ideas, there are different ways to tackling an issue in a given field. But, having innovation front and centre in your mind is what’s really important as it drives you to ask ‘is there a better way?’. That kind of innovative thinking helps us achieve what our business improvement team is striving for.

JK: Without a good innovative culture, a lot of good ideas can get lost. If we can create a very good culture around innovation, those ideas won’t be misplaced, but leveraged in the future.

“The most exciting outcome would be to have this as a national program across all divisions.”

How well do you feel your innovative thoughts and ideas were heard by those who have the ability to turn them into something tangible?

JH: We felt nothing but support through the whole process. I made a speech on the night and explained that innovation without support is just an idea. We’ve been aided by all levels of management right through the challenge. Feeling that support and working within its framework was a very important part of the process.

How far do you think this idea can potentially expand within the industry and what do you see as the next steps to make that possible?

JK: When we thought of the idea, we decided to run a trial at one depot in the Hunter Valley to prove that the concept worked. Since the Innovation Challenge, we’ve managed to get a lot more visibility across the company. Now, we’re rolling the program out and extending the trial to a depot in Queensland and another in the Gunnedah Basin. We believe the potential is to apply this across Pacific National.

JH: What we feel the Innovation Challenge win has done for us is open the door so that management of various divisions and depots already know about our idea and what it’s about. Consequently, part of the hard sell has been done for us and we’re not starting from square one. For us, in the long term, the most exciting outcome would be to have this as a national program across all divisions. Individually, that would give us a lot of personal pride, but we also believe that it would be the ideal outcome for the business too.

No idea innovative idea is too big and small and inspiration can come from any area of the workplace.No innovative idea is too big or small, and inspiration can come from any area of the workplace.

Did you expect so much creativity from the shortlisted finalists, and were you impressed with the level of competition?

JK: There was an impressive range of ideas. In particular, there were a few ideas in the safety space in the top three with us. The Mobile Ballast Stairs (from Pacific National’s Francois Hillier) was an idea that’s tackling one of the primary causes of injury at Asciano. That innovation came from someone who’d looked around their workplace and devised a very simple solution that could help prevent a plethora of accidents from happening. It goes to show that simple, effective ideas could yield massive benefits for the company.

JH: Most humbling for us was those guys who had addressed problems in their roles using their own time. We had the opportunity and support to do what we did within normal work hours as part of the remit of our duties within the business improvement team. We realised how much external work everyone had put in, so to be chosen as ultimate winners in that context was really humbling.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to enter next year’s competition, or even come up with innovative ideas in their own line of work?

JH: The obvious message is just “have a go and enter”. First things first, it’s a fun process and the spectrum of ideas over this and previous years shows there is no innovative idea too big or too small. Taking a bit of a time out and entering an idea doesn’t have to be too laborious, and it could prove to be a game changer. Ultimately, only good can come of it, and I can’t see a downside of entering into the innovation challenge.

Lastly, what are the challenges as Asciano aims to highlight and encourage innovation going forward?

JH: It’s conceivable that people may pre-judge an idea and therefore not offer to support it early in the development stage. An open mind and realisation that there are many potential wins and improvements to be made will always be more important than playing ideas down. At the end of the day, that could stop any company from seeing a huge benefit. So, in overcoming the barriers to innovation, in a word, it’s ‘support’.

JK: For an innovation culture to grow and improve, the organisation has to think about what processes need to be put in place to give employees some time out or additional focus to allow the growth and development of ideas. Getting outside of the day-to-day mentality and having the organisational system in place to foster those ideas is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

JH: I believe that’s happening at Asciano, but reinforcing it will unlock even more innovation going forward.