Innovation is sometimes considered the domain of a genius only. “Eureka” is certainly part of the phenomenon. Yet, systematic and proven approaches are available for the most diverse strategy and innovation challenges. In form of a short “journey”, this article demonstrates how structured thinking for innovation can facilitate formulating a “vision of the future” and you will notice that most often there is no short-cut to success. This article will point out where a “fast-track” line of argumentation like ours needs to be backed by thorough investigation and how that can be done.

Careful planning, transformational efforts and a lot of daily management with the future in sight are the key. However, that shall not be the focus here. We want to recognize the possible future in a seemingly everyday situation which can then be used as reference for concerted and focused investigation, planning and action.

Cappucino inspiration

A warm spring afternoon at Hamburg’s timeless Strandperle café offers a splendid view of one of the most revolutionary yet quite obviously under-appreciated inventions of the 20th century: the humble shipping container. As we sit by the river Elbe, a container ship passes by sailing upstream and down every few minutes. Hamburgers will proudly confirm that over a year about 10,000 ships ferry 130 million tons of freight to and from their city’s harbor.

Like many other inventions, all those containers we now take for granted, this too at one point in time was “beyond imagination”. In 1956 gas station agent Malcom McLean came up with the idea of standardizing container sizes to allow for complete mechanization of ship loading and unloading procedure, arguably one of the key enablers of the current wave of globalization. According to the Worldbank, 3.8 billion (20-foot equivalent) containers were shipped worldwide in 2011 – just over one for every two inhabitants on the planet.

Sipping our cappuccino we ask: after nearly 60 years of virtually unchanged and glorious existence, is there really nothing new under the container-sun? Are the containers we see here and now the same as the ones one will see in 20 years from now?

One section of Hamburg harbor, as seen from Strandperle Café.

Mapping out the needs

That question leads us back to the basics: which “job” are containers actually doing for people? Quite obviously, they help transport freight over sea. The container reduces the hassle of loading and unloading. Having worked in construction, we know that people have found other uses for these over time as temporary offices or even dormitories. Exploring the container’s “core capabilities” for use in other areas is indeed one of the “Four Growth Quadrants” (see an application here). We decide not to go down that road and rather focus on the container itself.

In order to design a “container 2.0” we know we would first need to go out and study what people go through when packing and unpacking a container, loading it onto and unloading it from a ship. Quite likely, from a “Lean Management” perspective, many improvement areas should have been addressed already. To spot “2.0 potentials”, one would need to wear “innovation glasses” rather than “Lean glasses” – and we might also need to develop empathy for people, rather than for the efficiency of the process. For that, we would borrow the “how to” from the well-established methods in Design Thinking.

Beyond the loading and unloading: what about transportation on high sea? A captain needs to monitor how containers have shifted, eventually get some alert before things go terribly wrong. Containers need sea-water resistance – and many other things. We could discover those needs when observing that part of the “Job Map” for the original job-to-be-done which is to transport freight over sea.

Furthermore: what about the life cycle of a container? That can be captured in a “Consumption Chain Map”. Given the ingenuity of the container itself and how little it has changed over 60 years, quite likely there are “underserved needs” in building, acquiring or recycling containers, for example.

All that can’t be seen from our café here by the Elbe river and we leave it out of scope – for now. We are convinced, though, that such studies, when carefully planned and conducted, will reveal a wealth of opportunities.

Animated by a splendid view and the warm afternoon sun, we pull together what we think we know about what transportation companies and port authorities, for example, expect from containers: Most obviously, good shipment containers

  • Resist strong mechanical stress
  • Resist fire
  • Withstand harsh weather and salt water conditions
  • Have a long useful lifespan
  • Fit on multiple means of transportation (truck, train, ship, …)
  • Have low total cost of ownership (acquisition, maintenance, disposition, …)
  • Are easy to handle (grab, load, unload, stack, …)

So far so boring, we conclude: “let’s think a bit out of the box”. In order to identify what “the box” is, we look for “orthodoxies”, one of the “Four Lenses of Innovation”. Even our limited container transportation experience yields interesting thoughts:

  • Why use steel to make containers? Let’s use some “advanced materials” instead
  • Opaque containers are a hassle for port authorities; they should be transparent and easy to scan
  • Why are containers bulky? Let’s make them easy to fold when empty, like moving boxes.

We get distracted by the kids who want to take off shoes to go into the water which is not a good idea, as a large sign says: large ships can create surprisingly big waves and pull you into the cold water. We notice we had explored before one other “lens”, which is to look into needs. Thus, we now decide to go for the next – trends. We scribble “internet of things” and “big data” on the napkin. Everything from cities to homes to cars to fridges turns “smart” these days: why no “smart containers”? Just looking at our list of trends we realize we are suffering from the “availability heuristic”: those are just the trend everyone talks about these days. In a more thorough study, we would need to exploit a proven list of trends, as it is developed by TRIZ practitioners like Darrell Mann. For now, we add to our list of a good “container 2.0”:

  • Trace the where-about of a container
  • Have all kinds of sensors installed (vibration, infrared,…)
  • Be able to access and analyze all that data.

One of us knows that port authorities dream of identifying containers with suspicious movements to flag them for screening upon arrival at the port. We also think cooling containers already have sensors built in. Yet, can captains know the load inside a given container or if an entire container moves which can result in an accident or losses? Our airline experience implies that might be critical for ships, too. We also know of reports about illegal immigrants arriving in containers. Simple noise and vibration sensors in the container would detect such irregularities. Containers not sending all their data to port authority upon arrival could be flagged anyway. You have many such containers on your ship? Too bad for you, discharge takes longer and you could be priced accordingly. Where to place the antenna? Compared to the small size of a smartphone, a container can easily house a high-performance antenna.

“What about the last lens, resources?”, we ask. However, we are a bit of a hurry to bring a concept on the table, quite literally so. For now, we decide to look into that fourth lens when it comes to making the solution concept work, rather than figuring out that very concept. We also think that our thorough checklist would again be better than just using what comes to mind right here and now.

The Four Lenses of Innovation

Challenge orthodoxies


Which are the “dogmas” and deeply held beliefs? What must be fulfilled for success to be possible?

Watch out for trends and discontinuities


Which trends go unnoticed? Where can we be flexible while others are rigid (or vice versa)? Which emerging patterns can change the game?

Leverage competencies, assets and resources


What is at disposal and goes unnoticed?Where is easy and free support?

Understand the true needs


What are stated and unarticulated needs?How important is it, how satisfied are people with it?

The “Four Lenses” (acc. P. Skarzynski & R. Gibson, authors of “Innovation to the Core”) are a powerful brainstorming tool for figuring out innovation opportunities.

Is there a “Blue Ocean Strategy” for the “container 2.0”?

These considerations allow us to conceptualize the “ideal container”: it is ultra-light, transparent, mechanically robust, chemically inert, foldable and it can self-power a range of sensors. Upon receiving a legitimate request, it reveals its identity and transmits all sensor and GPS tracking data.

Not bad, we think while our modest dinner table is being dressed. Our guess is that after 56 years, the market for containers must be well-established: all players know what matters, product variants are clearly defined and fierce competition takes place around even minor total cost of ownership advantages. In other words: the current market must be a “red ocean”. With that approach celebrating its 10th anniversary these days, can our thinking here inspire a “Blue Ocean Strategy” for the shipping container?

To spark our own creativity by making things specific, we decide to go for a more realistic version of the “ideal container”. For that purpose, we borrow ideas from where we find them. With the cool evening breeze coming in now, we need to speed up anyway.

Our “paper prototype” of a container 2.0 is made of carbon-fiber walls inserted in a steel frame: carbon is transparent to “soft” X-rays such as the ones used at airports. Our container is equipped with GPS, plug & play sensors for motion, temperature, vibration or whatever else might be required. It has an aircraft-inspired “black box” and a mobile phone link. These electronics are powered by the rolling of the ship on sea (similar to some wrist-watches – see the use of one resource here?), which we think in this case is a better “free” energy source than sunlight.

Such a container would “create” new needs like the ease of folding, soft X-ray scan-ability and energy self-sufficiency for “intelligence” and communication. Through its light weight it would “enhance” transportation CO2 efficiency and handling. Fire resistance could be addressed with flame retardants and the salt-water resistance might eventually become even better. From where we sit, we can see and hear how containers are handled: our new container would definitely “reduce” the current ability to withstand shocks: with some kind of process innovation or mistake proofing that shouldn’t turn into a showstopper, though.

Nothing new under the sun …

Back home and the kids in bed, we convene for a brief conference call to put together some quick research results:

  • The United States have passed the SAFE Port Act in 2006. The deadline for implementation of 100% X-ray scanning is being pushed out, apparently because current containers make such a procedure impractical. As soon as the new “container 2.0” is out and working, one might be able to count on the US for the regulatory lobbying work so that everyone upgrades fast.
  • In the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Ispra, Italy, the EU is currently working on the developing a composite shipping container to replace its steel-based predecessor.
  • JRC researchers estimate that carbon-based containers could have half the weight of their steel counterparts: one instead of about two tons per 20-foot container. Again according to the research center, this could offset the tripling of the container price through reduced fuel cost after no more than 120,000km of travelling.

Towards building the vision

Crunching those numbers (Appendix: Some back of the envelope calculations) we “go wow”: light-weight container should have the potential of closing about a third (a third!) of the still-to-be-identified gap between targeted and currently committed (read: hoped-for) global reductions of CO2 emissions by 2020.

The online Journal Innovation Excellence has recently launched a series entitled “an innovator has an obligation to…”. We think we should add an obligation: “…to drive the change that is in sight but not in reach”. For sure, multiple technical, procedural, regulatory and other problems will need to be solved to make the container 2.0 work.

We are convinced that these challenges are worth being listed very carefully so one can work on them. The potential of making a substantial contribution to closing the CO2-gap says it’s worth it. Taken seriously, this is also bold enough a goal to bring together stakeholders like US and other port authorities, the UN, EU, environmental organizations and others. Together, these agents may indeed be able to do what it takes to further investigate, plan and act. Along the way, they will reap a wealth of benefits well beyond the carbon-challenge: the shipping container 2.0 has a lot more “in it for them all”.

Appendix: Some back of the envelope calculations

Dr. Michael

Dr. Michael Ohler, Principal at BMGI

With a PhD in physics and as certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Michael supports companies in crafting, planning and executing strategy. His key interest is in proven methodologies for the practitioner. In this contribution, he uses those same approaches for the wandering mind.



Ismail Ataman, BPI Implementation Manager at Damco

Ismail is a Lean SixSigma Professional and a trained Black Belt and Project Management Professional specializing in Information Technology, Supply Chain Management & Logistics and Manufacturing. A curious mind, he is always on the lookout for new ideas and cutting edge practices.