The Real Lessons From Kodak’s Decline

  • Willy Shih
  • May 20, 2016

Eastman Kodak is often mischaracterized as a company whose managers didn’t recognize soon enough that digital technology would decimate its traditional business. However, what really happened at Kodak is much more complicated — and instructive.

Eastman Kodak Co. is often cited as an iconic example of a company that failed to grasp the significance of a technological transition that threatened its business. After decades of being an undisputed world leader in film photography, Kodak built the first digital camera back in 1975. But then, the story goes, the company couldn’t see the fundamental shift (in its particular case, from analog to digital technology) that was happening right under its nose.

The big problem with this version of events is that it’s wrong. Moreover, it obscures some important lessons that other companies can learn from. To begin with, senior leaders at Kodak were acutely aware of the approaching storm. I know because I arrived at Kodak from Silicon Valley in mid-1997, just as digital photography was taking off. Management was constantly tracking the rate at which digital media was replacing film. But several factors made it exceedingly difficult for Kodak to shift gears and emerge with a consumer franchise that would be sustainable over the long term. Not only was a major technological change upending our competitive landscape; challenges were also affecting the ecosystem we operated in and our organizational model. Ultimately, refocusing the business with so many forces in motion proved to be impossible.

A Difficult Technology Transition

Kodak’s first challenge had to do with technology. Over the course of more than a century, Kodak and a small number of its competitors had developed and refined manufacturing processes that enabled consumers to capture and preserve images for a lifetime. Color film was an extremely complex product to manufacture. The 60-inch “wide rolls” of plastic base material had to be coated with as many as 24 layers of sophisticated chemicals: photosensitizers, dyes, couplers, and other materials deposited at precise thicknesses while traveling at 300 feet per minute. Wide rolls had to be changed over and spliced continuously in real time; the coated film had to be cut to size and packaged — all in the dark. With film, the entry barriers were high. Only two competitors — Fujifilm and Agfa-Gevaert — had enough expertise and production scale to challenge Kodak seriously.

The transition from analog to digital imaging brought several challenges. First, digital imaging was based on a general-purpose semiconductor technology platform that had nothing to do with film manufacturing — it had its own scale and learning curves.