Kumon Uses Old Innovations Today

Still wired from 20 hours in flight and now lounging in the Ritz-Carlton hotel bar in Singapore, I flip to an article that underscores an often-overlooked pattern of innovation: When the competition is going after the "new" thing, outthinkers beat them by re-embracing the old.

Some companies know and use this pattern, including Wal-Mart and the 160-year-old New York Life. If you study the companies that have survived multiple "crises" like our current economic mess, then you will see this same pattern at work.

The article I was reading at the hotel bar was on Kumon, the world's largest after-school math and reading program. Kumon has continued to dominate its market for 50 years. At $800 million, it is estimated to be nearly twice the size of its next largest peer. Through 26,000 centers, it helps 4.1 million students worldwide improve their math and reading skills. Even in today’s tight economic times, the company maintains its half-century tradition of delivering reliable growth (about 10% this year).

When I got back home, I immediately scheduled a call to learn more. The company put me in touch with Deven Klein, VP of franchising, who helped dissect some of Kumon’s secrets to its success.

Look For What Others Abandon

The first part of Kumon’s success formula is to return to the old way of doing things. Its core methodology has changed little in the 50 years since its founding. The whole company is dedicated to teaching students fundamentals and all Kumon staff follows the values below.

While its competitors flock to new technology like PC-based interactive learning, Kumon refuses to use computers. Kumon students are not even allowed to use calculators. As Klein explains, "The whole idea is to build strong fundamental skills so that a person won’t need a calculator."

The company also skips the latest educational "fads," and instead sticks to a methodical system composed of hundreds of short exercises students repeat until they get them right. This way, students learn in a systematic and pressure-free way while also building the fundamentals to a strong education.

"The program is a gradual progression so that it is easier on the student. We move at the student’s speed, not our own," says Klein.

While many competitors have gone public, Kumon has resisted this, worried public investors might force it to dilute its uniqueness in the pursuit of more rapid growth.

Resist The Mob Mentality

Resisting the crowd’s pull takes courage. Gregory Berns’ excellent new book, Iconoclast, shows there are scientific, cognitive reasons why most of us want to follow the crowd. Social pressure, it turns out, is just one factor. But outthinkers enjoy greater freedom and are not as easily swayed by society.

Kumon has resisted the pressures to embrace the new technology. Kumon refuses to follow the crowd, and instead, it relies on the foundation that made the company great. It reuses its own fundamentals to build children’s core math and reading skills.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your company can embrace a forgotten past.

1. What has your competition abandoned?

2. What have you abandoned?

3. Why did you and your competitors abandon a practice, technology or product?

4. What could happen if you readopted this technology, methodology or way of doing things?