INNOVATION is an essential part of business that all corporations try to encourage among their employees. At Yamato, there exists a synergistic fusion of Japanese-style management and a culture of innovation that has led the company to where it is today.

The Japanese logistics specialist, which owns popular delivery service TA-Q-BIN, currently uses Singapore as a testbed to explore innovative business models for various industries in South-east Asian operations.

The group's South-east Asian subsidiary, Yamato Asia, partnered with the Economic Development Board to set up its Asia Business-Model Innovation Centre (ABIC) in Singapore, which tests out new technologies and studies ways to implement them in the daily operations.

Since different sectors have different logistics needs, the ABIC aims to derive customised solutions to suit the needs of different industries.

Yamato recognises the cultural differences of the markets it operates in, therefore taking into account the different requirements for engaging its wide range of customers. It then adopts a different approach to each market, instead of simply applying its widely successful Japanese business model everywhere.

The secret to Yamato's success and innovative culture lies in "GEMBA", a Japanese term which translates to "the real place".

It refers to the "place" in every business where value is added. Many firms in Japan practise GEMBA as a means to solve daily problems and improve service quality, by focusing on areas of their businesses where the most value is generated.

In Yamato's case, GEMBA has taken on a new role to become a source of innovation.

The company believes that problems in the workplace give rise to creativity. Therefore, it actively encourages its customers and employees from all levels to voice any concerns or suggestions they may have.

The company's senior management team would then meet every Friday to discuss the comments they have received, and decide whether or not to implement the suggestions.

This unique GEMBA approach to innovation has reaped multiple benefits for Yamato, with many of its most-popular existing services having originated as employee suggestions.

One example of this is the "Ski TA-Q-BIN" service line, where Yamato's TA-Q-BIN team would deliver skiers' equipment to their respective ski resorts ahead of their trips, and back to their homes afterwards.

This was suggested by an employee from Yamato's Nagano branch, who noticed that the bulky ski equipment in the trains was causing inconvenience and spoiling the holiday mood among skiers.

The initial test run of the Ski TA-Q-BIN service received such an overwhelming response from customers that Yamato decided to launch it as a permanent service offering.

The company's senior management imposes few restrictions on its employees, giving them the flexibility to make their own decisions when the need arises. Yamato's delivery staff enjoy a level of autonomy that is practically unheard-of in most corporate cultures around the world. "Japan's culture is based on trust," explained Yamato Asia's group CEO and managing director, Richard Chua.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Yamato's delivery staff took it upon themselves to deliver relief supplies to victims, prioritising the safety of those in their community over their immediate job responsibilities. Given the urgency of the situation, employees were granted full autonomy in deciding whether or not to focus their efforts on disaster relief.

Mr Chua is hopeful that Singapore's logistics may one day be able to adopt this unique system, but also acknowledges that there is a long road ahead.

"These things don't happen overnight. It takes time and effort. We have to put our staff through numerous trainings to inculcate these values in them," concluded Mr Chua.