‘Low Aim is a Crime’ – APJ Abdul Kalam

The construct of the word impossible has in it seeds of ‘possibility’, (‘I’m’ possible) when innovation attempts fail to achieve significant impact it just means we have not paid enough attention to realm of possibilities.

When Katsuaki Watanabe1 became Toyota’s president, he spoke of his dream of developing a car that makes air cleaner as it runs; a car that will not hurt drivers or pedestrians and never gets into an accident; a car that can make drivers healthier the longer they drive; a fuel-efficient car that can go from one coast of the United States to the other on one tank of gas and eventually around the world.

While he talked of all these dreams he also emphasized the importance of knowing reality of today with respect to the unfolding future. According to him the gap between the ideal and the real helps people challenge the prevalent paradigms in terms of technical challenges and customer’s real ‘jobs’. The gap between ‘ideal and real’ surfaces many contradictions, the greatest fuel for innovating into the future.

What’s Impossible??

The easiest synonym that one can find for ‘impossible’ is ‘ideal’. In engineering colleges, they teach you a concept of ‘Ideal Machine’ that gives an output which equals an input without incurring any losses. For an uninitiated mind that may sound like CRAZY, but the spirit behind the ‘ideal machine’ stems from the fact that world has limited resources to consume but desires for an output that is infinite.

Now this definition sounds good as a philosophy but hardly attract the attention of the business world. They want to understand ‘ideal’ without really having a philosophical discussion around it.

Business Definition of ‘Ideality’

This is the definition that everyone understands as it talks about the terms that business is most familiar with. There are provider and customer dimension to each attributes of the equation. Each customer & provider need to have infinite benefits with almost zero cost and negative effects. All benefits mean improvement in customer’s tangible & intangible expectation with almost zero cost of acquisition and maintenance with no failures during usage. The provider’s ideality on the other hand is all about selling more products/ services at a price point that ensures healthy top line and at a cost that is minimum with no liability to ensure a healthy bottom line.

How concept of ‘ideality’ Works: Case Study (Washing Clothes)

Now every one of us surely has this task of ‘washing clothes’ to be done on a daily basis. Currently we have a certain standard way of doing it either we wash it ourselves or we get done with a domestic help with or without a gadget (for e.g. washing machine which most use to wash clothes). The whole system of washing has many elements in it viz. clothes, water, detergent, washing machine, electricity, bucket, place to wash, etc. Let’s tabulate elements of ideality equation for us to imagine ‘ideality’ of various attributes under each element of the equation2. For keeping the discussion simple at this point in time, we will only consider elements that matters most to the customer.

Benefits Cost Harm
  • Efficacy of Cleaning
  • Fast Cleaning
  • Easy Stain Removal
  • Clothes Smell Fresh
  • Clothes Look Fresh
  • Skill less washing
  • Acquisition & Maintenance Cost (e.g. Washing Machine)
  • Detergent Cost
  • Electricity Cost
  • Excessive Use of Water (When water will be charged equal to gas)
  • Damaged Clothes
  • Allergens
  • Wrinkled Cost
  • Health hazard to person washing the clothes

To imagine ‘ideality’ for a system called ‘washing clothes’ we need to define ‘ideality’ of very element, in this case ‘clothes’ because of which the ‘system of washing’ exists. The simple way towards ‘ideality’ in such a case is to imagine whether the element ‘clothes’ perform the function by itself. Then we need to run through a series of questions for us to discover solutions that may help us achieve the ideality.

Let’s build an illustration with the questionnaire3

  1. What’s the final aim of the system
    Clean Clothes
  2. What is the Ideal Final Result (Ideality) outcome?
    Clothes that clean itself
  3. What is stopping you achieving this IFR?
    Textile fibres are not able to perform this function
  4. Why is it stopping you?
    If fibres can’t perform this function; the clothes aren’t cleaned
  5. How could you make the thing(s) stopping you disappear?
    If there was a fibre or fibre structure that was able to clean itself
  6. What resources are available to help create these circumstances?
    Fibre, atmosphere, wearer, wardrobe, sunlight etc.
  7. Has anyone else been able to solve this problem?
    The ‘self-clean’ function is possible in nature (Lotus Plant), but the only man-made self-clean structures (e.g. ovens, glass) use resources that are not present in this case. Alternative: Disposable Clothes

Now if we could get an answer to this question, you possibly achieve all the benefits that customer is seeking without he incurring any cost and harm listed in the table above, so if clothes clean themselves then we do not need washing machine and all the associated material that goes with it (for e.g. washing powder, electricity, water etc.). You are almost there with an ideal solution, but if at this point in time we do not know how to achieve a practical solution, the process asks us to take a step back and asks questions around the next most expensive & recurring cost that we incur which is washing powder. We once again run through the questions and find out solution clues that can help us move closer to the ideal solution.

Here the clues are mainly around the technologies that enable ‘cleaning’ of solid objects without using any ‘external agent’. Here in this case for e.g. it could be a washing machine using the technology of ‘ultrasound cleaning’. Many other industries like ‘automobiles’ deploy ‘ultrasound cleaning’ for cleaning engine components to ensure dust free & foreign particles free engine.

The process of defining ‘ideality’ continues by ‘elimination’ of a resource that is being currently consumed by the system or by minimalistic use of it. This approach of defining ‘ideality’ takes innovation teams in leaps & bounds to the solution that looks impossible at the first instance but if implemented can give a significant improvement/s which is/are far better than having an incremental approach which aims at improving things only by 5% to 10% from their current level and hence stops teams challenge existing paradigms & look for alternatives. The following illustration demonstrates how the process works.

Other Ways to Define Ideality & Generating Solution Ideas

If it is not easy for everyone to imagine the impossible at first instance. There is another specific ‘innovation tool’ that can help us do that, the tool is known as ‘Trends of Evolution’ the research on patents, assimilation of ideas from the business & management world have captured an evolutionary pattern decoding the way system evolves to increasing ideality going through various evolution stages. Each of this trend pattern is associated with reasons (why?) and relevant examples for teams to draw an analogy & define ideality for their own system. We will cover more about this tool sometime in near future.

Once we define ideality it helps us define technical / business contradictions (We want to improve parameter A but parameter B stops us), we can then use tools like ‘inventive principles’ to generate innovative ideas. Resources, Functional & Attribute effects are some of the other tools that can be used when we are trying to find a better way of delivering the function or improving an attribute.

Patent analysis trend shows that more patents are filed with solutions that are self-delivering while improving an attribute for e.g. like self-cleaning, self-heating, Self-Adjusting, Self-Compensating etc.  More about this in the later posts.

What’s Next: Call for Action

If your organisation is driving operational excellence initiatives for a long time, it might have set ‘SMART’ (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time bound) thinking in the minds of your people, this might stop them imagining something big. They may have got into habit of optimising a system that has already been optimised. At this stage, operational excellence journey, efforts and results are often in inverse proportion making management wonder, why excellence initiatives are not enabling excellence in all spheres of business they look forward to.

We definitely continue to require SMART thinking but by re-defining from Attainable to Audacious & from Realistic to Idealistic  

If your operational excellence efforts are not yielding results as you expect & you are no better than your competitor, then let your excellence teams go back to the drawing board and redefine their improvement end point by defining impossible goals. Pull your socks and get ready.

‘What You Seek is Seeking You’ – Rumi

First, seek impossible goals and eventually impossible goals will seek you.


  1. ’Extreme Toyota’ – Radical Contradictions That Drive Success at the World’s Best Manufacturer-  OSONO, SHIMAZU and TAKEUCH, WILEY Publication
  2. The Innovator’s Toolkit’ – Silverstein, Philip Samuel & DeCarlo, Wiley Publication.
  3. Hands on Systematic Innovation, Darrell Mann, Ideal Final Result, UK Publication