Thursday, October 11, 2007

More on How Canon got its flash back

As reader juadlam suggests in his or her comments to my previous post on the book about Fujio Mitarai, the comments and questions raised require a new post. First, here is the comment:

So did the book include much about digital photography? The title seems spot on for a good bit of discussion about how their digital cameras came to be so strong in market. I'd be curious if their analysis covers how they seem to have made the transition to digital so well. Also creating a new division seems like quite an undertaking for a research lab. This almost sounds like another post. I expect that this is especially challenging so if the new division has any overlap with the existing divisions. It's probably even equally challenging if there is zero overlap with the existing divisions.

Posted by juadlam on 10/9/2007 3:58 PM

The book is on Fujio Mitarai and not on Canon's technology, but let me try to answer your questions anyway. The question on transitioning from analog to digital has to do with the culture of a company's head honcho, as we affectionately call presidents here in the Silicon Valley. When companies have a lock on a market, their financial success can be increased more easily by investing in a big sales force than investing in technologists. As a corollary, when a leader advances through the ranks to become the president, this leader is likely to come from sales not technology.

In sales, the formula for success is to not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, and a president with a sales background will conservatively tend to muzzle anybody trying to rock the boat. In contrast, a president that has risen through the ranks as a technologist, will declare that you're not paranoid if they really are out to get you, and the competitors will indeed be out to top your technology.

You can find many case studies on this in business books. Burroughs was a classical example of a company of the first kind. More recent examples are Xerox, where in the late 70s Gary Starkweather (who later coined the cliché "how Xerox stumbled the future") had built the Lilac color laser printer/copier and explained that you can do color xerography only digitally, while his corporate management wanted to hold on to light lens processing. And of course Kodak, who early on invented many digital color technologies only to have corporate management stuck on AgX and photochemistry.

For the second kind of companies, the most vocal one is perhaps Intel with their motto that only the paranoid survive. In HP, Dave Packard had the business rule that at least 80% of the product catalog had to be in the catalog for 18 months or less, and Bill Hewlett's mantra was that HP had to create new divisions killing the old divisions before the competition did it.

Canon is such a technology company. While Xerox was busy fighting with digital vs. light lens, Canon was busy developing the digital color laser copier CLC-1, which was an immediate smash hit. Behind the scenes, Susumu Sugiura (a.k.a. Sid Sugiura in Australia), had built a large team with deep knowledge in digital color imaging. At the Canon developer conferences in 1991 and 1992 they held workshops on color appearance modeling, demonstrating they were ahead of the bleeding edge.

In 1993 the Imaging Research Center in Shimomaruko started the Digital Eye project with an initial staff of 100 R&D personnel. At the 1996 EI conference, the discussion of Yoshiro Udagawa's paper Color image processing in Canon's digital camera demonstrated a very deep understanding of the image processing for digital cameras and especially of how to make trade-offs between the various parameters.

Kumada and YamadaIn 2000, Canon started a company-wide movement to establish a unified standard for high image quality in all of their products, from input to output, which they called the "concept of Canon's unified high-quality color system." The technical wizards behind this effort were Shuichi Kumada and Osamu Yamada — portrayed at right — and the result was the Kyuanos color management system.

Essentially Kumada and Yamada tossed the sRGB color model operator and the ICC profiles with all their limitations out of the window and build a new system from first principles, based on color appearance modeling. Kyuanos is implemented in all Canon products and in the case of the digital cameras you are asking about, it is implemented in hardware as part of the DIGIC chip, which is at the core of all of Canon's cameras.

In essence, Canon's image processing is so good because they have been at it consistently for more than 25 years. The people behind it have become so good at what they are doing, that part of Kyuanos was even adopted by Microsoft for their Windows Vista operating system.

As I mentioned in my previous post, grooming people to excel as leaders is a difficult task but it is a crucial task for technology companies. In Canon's case, in phase III of their Excellent Global Corporation Plan, one of the key strategies is Nurture truly autonomous individuals to promote everlasting corporate innovation, which they express as follows:

For Canon to become a world-class company, our employees must strive for excellence. From a human-resource development standpoint, we will further enhance our education and training programs to cultivate capable employees who are trusted by society, and encourage employees to put into practice Canon's "Three Selfs" guiding principle. At the same time, we will step up efforts to develop insightful global leaders and business managers who actively contribute to not only progress at Canon, but also to the business world and society as a whole.

In the case of science and technology, this results in the Canon Academy of Technology with the theme Specialists Cultivating Technology.