All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan’s largest airline, operates in a highly competitive industry that has not witnessed any radical innovations for years. To make the situation more challenging, the company is based in Japan – a country characterized by risk-avoiding organizations and decades of nearly zero growth. Despite all these hurdles, ANA is focused on creating and experimenting with concepts that one day might re-imagine the company or the industry in general. While on a global scale this might not be novel per se, ANA is now utilizing its “ANA Digital Design Lab” (DDL) as an interface towards Japan’s startup ecosystem contributing to it and bringing in new ideas.
One core element in ANA’s DNA has always been the spirit of yanchasa – Japanese for being rebellious – and DDL is one of its manifestations. Already from the start ANA has been a privately owned company, a rare sight in an industry predominantly controlled by state-backed enterprises. Considering the context – an inert aviation industry and traditional Japanese society – standing out from the crowd by taking risks is not seen as a textbook approach to running a company in Japan. It is therefore worthwhile to take a closer look at DDL, as it might offer us a glimpse of how companies in Japan or the aviation industry could look like in the future.
Currently, the DDL consists of five core team members as well as approximately twenty ambassadors throughout the company. Kevin Kajitani, one of the founding members of DDL, described the team as spanning various disciplines as well as generations: baby boomers and millennials; engineers, corporate planners as well as people with a background in hospitality. But instead of just being ‘out there’, DDL is also supported by the aforementioned ambassadors that serve a dual role. Firstly, they feed internal insights into DDL’s processes. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – they help DDL in spreading their outputs throughout the organization. In doing so, they not only serve as ‘antennas’ for DDL in identifying best practices and current challenges across the organization, but they are also regularly brought together by DDL to help with disseminating knowledge and ideas between DDL’s broader stakeholder network. This indwelling, in fact, has traditionally characterized Japanese companies: employees from all responsibility levels are encouraged to intervene whenever they encounter processes that do not work. However, DDL’s focus goes beyond optimizing the present by mostly focusing on the future.
DDL in a nutshell
- Established in April 2016, supported by ANA’s top management
- Currently DDL consists of five people with diverse backgrounds ranging from Millennials and Baby Boomers to hospitality experts and internal innovators
- DDL works as a team in the periphery: they look at questions and issues that might come to transform ANA in the future (such as avatars, AR, VR, drones)
- The DDL ambassadors meet on a regular basis to discuss issues and challenges rising from within the organization as well as how to spread DDL’s outputs throughout ANA
- Thus, DDL usually approaches its initiatives by asking two questions: “what if this would exist?” and “how could we improve this?”
The Wonderfly Platform
Institutionally speaking, the DDL is still relatively young. Regardless, it has established a collaboration with the technological development NPO XPRIZE ) and created WonderFLY, a crowdfunding platform that supports innovators and provides ANA’s loyal customers with products never seen before. Based on the ideas submitted to WonderFLY, ANA provides the creators with funding for the prototype, after which a crowdfunding campaign is launched in the platform.
What makes WonderFLY stand out in the jungle of crowdfunding sites is the way in which ANA is both opening up its customer base to external innovators as well as providing them with funding and resources without any equity expected in return. The WonderFLY platform provides individuals and teams with an opportunity to see if their idea has potential among ANA’s loyal customers: Japanese consumers are known to be both demanding and eager to try new things, and ANA’s customers are no exception here. The idea was initially pitched as a crowdfunding platform, but the DDL looked at current market failures in Japan and decided to radically alter the prevailing crowdfunding design. The first iteration of the concept was met with harsh critique both externally and internally, and for DDL this was a good sign: if it is seen as crazy or impossible, there must be something of value there. Thus, pushing the criticism aside for a while, DDL envisioned a scenario where WonderFLY existed, and from there they identified a starting point for realizing the idea, and a first WonderFLY event was organized in Tokyo in fall 2016.
In addition to this, the aim is also to indirectly contribute to Japan’s startup ecosystem by partnering with organizations such as Slush Asia. Thus, although on a surface level WonderFLY is basically a crowdfunding platform, on a deeper level its design proposal is to advance the entrepreneurial climate in Japan as well as gather new ideas on what ANA could become.
While the platform does not directly transform the aviation industry or ANA itself, it is nonetheless one of the first steps towards doing so, as no one really knows what else will emerge out of DDL. Thus, for ANA and DDL, design thinking amplifies the company’s DNA: ANA has always been the rebel at heart. The DDL and its application of design thinking now provide the company with the tools and methods to make their (historical) essence explicit through concrete, yet experimental, initiatives such as the WonderFLY platform.
At this stage, WonderFLY is living through its infancy, so it is somewhat difficult to analyze how it has changed or will change ANA as a company and whether it contributes to Japan’s startup scene. However, what makes this story interesting is that it takes place at the intersection of aviation industry and Japan. As mentioned in the beginning, both are seen as rather stagnant contexts, which is why DDL and WonderFLY should be seen as designerly informed propositions on how things could be organized. What is more, especially in Japan many companies seem to be embracing design thinking on a surface level, meaning that their focus is on copying and following the process, thus facing the danger of neglecting their initial competitive advantages. Above, however, we have described an initiative that is connecting design thinking with yanchasa – one of ANA’s guiding principles.