Kajima is one of the oldest and largest construction companies in Japan. At its establishment in 1840, Kajima began its railway construction business by installing some of the first rail lines in Japan. They’ve since branched out into dam and power plant construction, large scale undersea tunnels, and other critical infrastructure around the world.
The vision at Kajima is to “respect the past and embrace the future”. With the future of construction technology taking off, their focus on technological innovation and openness to new business models helps inform the way that they do work.
I speak here with their US-based Technology Development Manager on Kajima’s approach to innovation, including the way they build teams to take on the innovation journey and how they plant technology “seeds” that help address pain points and grow new opportunities in their business.
There are a lot of technology trends swirling around that promise to impact the construction industry. How are you approaching innovation and what processes have you implemented to help ensure you’re finding the right fit?
We do both what we call “Internal Innovation” and “Open Innovation.” Internal innovation refers to our in-house R&D. On the other hand, we also work with innovative companies like start-ups to get access to emerging technologies and other business ideas.
For both innovations, I think the most important part is finding the right problem to solve, which we sometimes have difficulty finding. Finding fit, I think, is finding the right problem.
And the approach we take is what we call a “needs and seeds” approach. Needs is the pain that a team has, or that society is incurring. Seeds is the new technology and the ideas that will help us alleviate that pain point. Digging into the needs help us approach the solution, while discovering the seeds can help us re-define what our needs look like. Keeping this loop circulating is the key to find the right fit.
Kajima is one of Japan’s oldest construction companies. Having been around since the early 1800s, why is the time right for the organization to put a strategic emphasis on technology and innovation?
Kajima has been constantly transforming by adding new businesses throughout our growth periods. In our fast-moving world, we had the urgency to rapidly evolve, so we decided to invest in technology and innovation.
I think the traditional boundaries of the construction industry will become much more blurred and staying ahead of this dynamic is going to be the key for new innovations. A lot of people are aware of this disruption, but I do not think that the disruption will happen by a great company that suddenly arises and takes away business.
The way that technology can change existing roles and structures of construction could be one way. This is seen as process innovation — constantly being around technology and sensing the game changing innovative ideas.
Construction companies often struggle with innovation and technology implementations. Give us a sense of your strategy for business innovation, especially in the context of a large field-based company like Kajima.
Innovation is sometimes viewed as creativity or a great idea, which sometimes makes sense. How we position innovation for ourselves, however, is the idea that innovation is about a willingness, desire, and commitment. We are working to bring innovation to everyone’s day-to-day life in a way that it’s everyone’s business, not just the people having a role in the innovation group.
If we start by only talking about ideas and technology, it gets difficult. In this regard, we do a lot of team empowerment. It could be a one-day workshop, or it could be a weekly program, or even an in-depth meeting or a talk session that we do with a team. And we let that team join the innovation journey if there’s a willingness to move forward.
Finding the right team, and growing as a team, is the way we approach it. It takes time and we understand that it will not happen suddenly. It can be a very challenging thing to do, due to cultural differences, language barrier, speed of business, anything you can name — but I believe that as far away as the two are, the spark of innovation can be bigger.
Nate Fuller is Managing Director of Placer Construction Solutions, advising leadership teams to transform their organizations in ways that improve performance and agility at the field level.
He provides construction companies with a field assessment that delivers transformative information about their field operations and is proven to accelerate innovation & technology adoption for Top ENR contractors.
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