Buying Innovation

Long-term success requires a different kind of investment

By Craig Yeack

The current edition of Concrete Products guides buying decisions for things that can be seen or felt, and almost always have one-to-one competition. There are many providers for trucks, plants and tools, and they all specialize in making the “buy now” button easy to press. But how do we go about buying innovation?

Innovation is the “act” of introducing something new, and it is more common than we might think. Of course, there is massive innovation like the NASA moon-shot, but as a rule, such a feat is just a collection of smaller acts of innovation, made possible by even smaller related acts. In reality, it all starts with the support and guidance for a multitude of small ideas from many curious innovators, some of which into bigger and bigger innovation until “the Eagle has landed” and Neil Armstrong gets all the credit.

Our industry has a tangled past with innovation. It seems we are in a race to be the first in second place when it comes to new ideas. Our work is full of hard, tactical challenges, and at the end of the day we want to kick back, have a beer and recharge for the next day. We have ample evidence that thinking about how to change our companies tends to get shortchanged, so let’s consider how to change ourselves.

The key is creating an environment that sustains curiosity and supports risk-taking, prudently balanced by the financial resources available. We must anchor the process internally by seeking out and encouraging the right people in our organizations. We may not be NASA, but we can give the truly curious some latitude away from their daily responsibilities.


Let’s start small and consider age rejected loads. A batchman noted that on the last big pour, seven of 120 loads were rejected for age, and four of those were under 10 minutes out. Curious, he went back to the batch controller and found that age was being calculated from “begin load” as triggered by the truck backing under the boot and tripped the loading geofence. Depending upon scheduling, material interruptions at the conveyor turnhead and a host of other issues, that truck might hang out under the boot for quite a while before the water hits the cement.

The intrepid batchman stays late and digs deeper. He determines that three of the seven rejected loads were OK if the age was measured from the time water hits cement. If acted on, his findings could prevent over $4,000 from being stripped from the bottom line of the order. Given this is just one job at one plant of 50, the batchman has discovered a genuinely daunting profitability leak.

Alone, the batchman can go no further. He may not know about ASTM C 94 guidelines, state department of transportation regulations or, most importantly, computer programming to get the information in a real-time process to people who can make actionable decisions. He needs support that simply does not exist inside the organization. You have now entered the Innovation Zone, and the next step is critical.


Buying innovation is a two-step process. One without the other will result in empty frustration. First, identify the restlessly curious inside your company and support them as genuine change agents when they bring you new ideas. Second, get help either inside or outside to work with the internal change agents and turn their ideas into real improvements that drive net income.

Empower your management team to step up and support internal innovation. In this small case, you would reach out to an expert for modern batching, such as Randy Willaman. He shepherded the Alkon Spectrum and then its new wrapper, Command Batch, for more than 30 years and now offers specialized consulting. There are dozens of areas—inventory management, inbound logistics, quality control, mix optimization, delivery, billing—with a slew of bona fide experts and companies available to help, but frankly, it only really works when in harness with an internal environment of change.

CraigCraig Yeack has held leadership positions with both construction materials producers and software providers. He is co-founder of BCMI Corp. (the Bulk Construction Materials Initiative), which is dedicated to reinventing the construction materials business with modern mobile and cloud-based tools. His Tech Talk column—named best column by the Construction Media Alliance in 2018—focuses on concise, actionable ideas to improve financial performance for ready-mix producers. He can be reached at [email protected].