Virtually all innovation begins with careful observation and astute listening.

Steve Jobs noticed that while people were walking they also listened to MP3 players, called people on their cell phones, carried cameras with them and even checked out GPS in their cars.

What if something could combine all of those in one device? Thus was born the Apple iPhone.

So, what if we are not as brilliant as Steve Jobs? (Apple, and the value of its stock, has not done so well without him.)

You and your teams can be innovative by following an established process for careful listening and understanding of customers. If you capture what you learn from this process, you can translate it into innovative new products or services.

Lara Lee, vice president of the customer experience at Lowe’s, developed the entire process for identifying the customer experience when she worked at Harley- Inc. in Milwaukee.

She took the time to teach that process to the staff of Biz Starts, which now teaches it to entrepreneurs to test their startup businesses.

Jenne Meyer Ph.D., director of global strategic marketing at GE Healthcare, new markets, customer needs and growth opportunities for education services at GE Healthcare.

On a basic level, it requires you to recognize that listening is just that: a very careful process.

When a customer or a potential customer responds to questions, they do so reflecting three realities about all of us:

  1.  There is a basic functional need a somebody wants to buy a car, they need a vehicle to transport them from one place to the other.
  2.  However, most people also engage their emotional and psychological needs. Most individuals do not buy a car simply to satisfy a functional need of transportation. Are they trying to make a statement about their lifestyle? Do they want to prove their net worth by purchasing a high-end vehicle? Do they want to prove they are “cool” by buying a sports car? Do they want to prove they are environmentally astute by buying a hybrid? Has the safety of their kids as passengers lead them to a particular vehicle choice?
  3.  Lastly, what values do they hold dear that drives them in their purchasing decisions? An individual who needs transportation and wants high performance and values the environment would be a likely target for a Tesla car. Someone buying a massive SUV or truck might be interested in making a statement about power.

The process of listening and identifying deeper level needs and values should be systematized and used to approach your customers or future customers. It translates into critical information that can lead to innovation.

Meyer at GE Healthcare overseas that listening process for education services. She uses it to develop educational offerings for GE’s customers. On a global scale, understanding the nuance of individual needs and values is critical to success in each market that GE serves. For example, the markets in China, India and Brazil are different.

Closer to home is Fred Anderson, CEO of New Berlin based Wenthe-Davidson Engineering Co. His company specializes in producing tubular products that protect and encapsulate electric motors, generators, diesel engines, and every other type of motor on the planet. Anderson originally approached his customer base by trying to sell them on the value and quality of the products they produce.

What he learned is that the customers had different needs from what he was selling. He discovered that each of his customers needed and valued a customized solution.

How is he going to meet that incredible need? He recognized that he had to stop telling customers what they needed and instead deliver what they wanted and valued.

As a result, he and his team went through the lean startup training so they could dramatically do one-piece flow. They instituted what the Japanese call kanban to reduce the amount of inventory.

He has great respect for his team, and he spends time out on the shop floor with them constantly improving the process so they can deliver immediately the quick turnaround and quality customized solutions their customers want.

As a result, the newfound skill has become their core competency and became a competitive advantage because no other manufacturer can meet their rapid ability to deliver quality products to specifications virtually overnight.

As Americans we tend to want to solve problems quickly. We have to break that habit if are going to successfully innovate. Few customers can easily articulate their needs, so you need to develop a mechanism of eliciting deeper level needs and values.

By listening and observing carefully your company will be able to identify the real problems your customers face – in turn positioning you to solve those problems.

That will lead to innovation that addresses a real need in your customer base and helps ensure your survival.