Book Review-Unleashing Innovation: How Whirlpool Transformed an Industry

With all of the books on innovation in the market, it’s a fair question to ask why I read Unleashing Innovation: How Whirlpool Transformed an Industry. There are two simple answers. First, it was recommended to me by a friend who felt like the book was a good discussion about innovation. Second, I was intrigued by the idea of operationalizing innovation as a way of life inside an organization. I’ve been involved with and have led innovation workshops but these represent a burst of activity around a specific need for innovation instead of an organization wide commitment to change the DNA of innovation.

Defining Innovation

Much is made in Unleashing Innovation about the idea of having a definition for innovation that the organization and everyone accepts. There is no doubt that this focuses everyone around the same goal. Interestingly the definition that is in use at Whirlpool isn’t the definition that I’d use. As I’ve talked about in some of my work (“Removing Innovation Friction by Improving Meetings” for the Ark Group Book Smarter Innovation: Using Interactive Processes to Drive Better Business Results.), I believe that innovation is the implementation of an idea. I believe strongly that everyone has ideas. We all have ideas buzzing through our brain. The road to hell is paved with good intentions (never executed). So the trick of innovation for me isn’t the ideation phase. It’s not the creation of ideas – or even the elicitation of ideas – that is the difficult part. The difficult part of innovation is nurturing and supporting an idea until it’s able to be implemented.

They share eight reasons why creating a solid definition for innovation is critical:

  • Helps screen and classify ideas.
  • Maintains integrity and credibility.
  • Provides objectivity and standards for innovation.
  • Ensures alignment and consistency across regions, business, and groups.
  • Drives differentiation.
  • Creates a common language.
  • Establishes what metrics are needed and tracked.
  • Helps innovators know where to focus to make ideas more innovative.
Discover the Truth

From Whence Does Innovation Come?

When I’m running an innovation workshop there’s an invisible dance that’s happening. It’s a dance when we’re all trying to get together to create something shared that comes together. The ideas that come – that will hopefully become innovations – are in a sense from everyone together. However, the kernel, the seed, the core – always comes from one individual. They put it out there as the next step in the dance first. The rest of us just all follow. What’s curious to me about this is that I almost never know who it will be that will offer up that nugget that we all ultimately find the most valuable. It can be the staunchest supporter of the old guard or the newest member of the team.

In a traditional model of innovation, a small group – typically research and development or marketing – are the keepers of innovation. They’ll provide the innovative ideas that the organization uses to drive itself forward. However, the idea that such a small group of people can be as powerful as enabling ideas and innovation to come from everyone in the organization can be silly.

In a focused engagement the question is about the person from which the vital idea will come. When you’re seeking to operationalize innovation into an organization there’s a slightly different context. There it’s about being inclusive about your thinking about who can help drive innovation forward. The vital idea may come from the CEO but it’s much more likely to come from the manufacturing line worker who spends time dreaming about making something new and different and compelling. The manufacturing worker longs to have something exciting to share with their family about something new and interesting they’re doing since for the most part they cannot see their jobs today that way.

Innovation comes often from questioning the orthodoxies (paradigms or ingrained practices) that people have come to expect. The people in management have too much to lose to be free to openly question orthodoxies – and innovate from the ideas that breaking them down can bring. Whirlpool broke down their orthodoxy that their customers are women with their line of garage storage solutions.

Flavor of the Weak

Anyone with corporate experience has seen programs come and go. The CEO reads a new book and decides that it’s the solution to the ails that the organization has. They hastily pen a note to HR to implement a new program. This kicks off a new program which is barely out of the gates when the CEO reads the next book and pens a new note to HR with the next new program. While this may be a slight exaggeration, it’s fundamentally what corporate cubicalites expect. With experience in the organization they realize that today’s hot topic will be discarded soon enough when it doesn’t work – so why get worked up about it?

Innovation can become the flavor of the month. It can be the thing that leadership (CEO or otherwise) believes is the thing that the organization needs. However, as Unleashing Innovation attributes 3M – does the leadership have the unwavering commitment to wait for patient money? There’s no doubt that innovation can return massive changes in profitability for an organization if it’s able to wait for them. Innovation isn’t a short bet and it’s not for those who’re watching the quarterly returns to be reported to the stock market.

Innovation Operational Excellence

What happens when you take an organization that’s known for organizational excellence in the form of Lean Six Sigma and Malcolm Baldrige awards and you infect them with innovation? The answer is that the organization weaves innovation into its DNA just like it had woven quality through its DNA. The results are amazing.

Manufacturing organizations used to have manufacturing systems and separate systems to ensure quality. However, thanks to Deming, organizations began to integrate quality into their manufacturing system. Instead of something separate which must be added on to the manufacturing process it was integrated into the process and as a result quality became the way of operating.

Like quality, integrating innovation is about a change of mindset. Integrating the quality system is about allowing everyone to identify and resolve quality problems. (See Change or Die about how Toyota took one of GM’s worst performing plants and made them effective by listening to them.) Innovation is a more difficult mindset to instill because it requires a level of creativity in addition to a level of commitment and focus.

There are hidden reasons why this is more challenging. Innovative and creative thought requires that our minds be free to think outside the box as was discussed in the book Drive. It’s hard to provide the accountability necessary for productivity while providing a safe environment for innovation and failure. Creating an environment that simultaneously hold people accountable and allows for failures is a difficult balance.

Rational and Emotional Drivers

Unleashing Innovation breaks down the drivers for innovation in the organization into two categories, the rational drivers and the emotional drivers. These roughly break down into the rider and the path in the rational drivers category and the elephant in the emotional drivers category. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the elephant-rider-path model.) They describe the emotional drivers as twice as important as the rational drivers – and yet the rational drivers are substantially longer and more detailed.

Rational Drivers

There are numerous rational ways to drive innovation into the culture. By setting up the systems of the organization up in a way that encourages innovation you create more conditions for innovation to occur. (See The Fifth Discipline and Thinking in Systems for more about how systems work.)

What appears below are the rational drivers called out in Unleashing Innovation with a few slight modifications of my own and commentary on them:

  • Strategic Architecture – The highest level framework for the organization is its vision, mission, goals, etc. Some of these can be created from the perspective of being most innovative or leveraging innovation to maintain profitability or they can be focused on operational excellence or cost efficiency. The more aligned the strategic architecture of the organization is towards innovation, the easier it will be for innovation to catch and be sustained in the organization.
    • Vision – As I mentioned in my book review of Dialogue I never met a vision I liked because they weren’t specific enough but I have a respect for the alignment that they can encourage. Aligning around innovation can be a powerful thing.
    • Goals – If the organization’s goals don’t include some measure of how innovation is driving the organization, how can you expect that employees will drive innovation?
    • Principles – In Heroic Leadership it was clear the four principles that the Jesuits worked from. If your organization doesn’t understand its guiding principles and they don’t include innovation how will the organization become innovative?
    • Approach – Sometimes the approach the organization uses like top-down control can stifle innovation. How is it that the organization approaching management and the encouragement for people to try new things – and fail?
    • Definitions – As mentioned above, the definition of what is innovative has a powerful set of effects on driving innovation.
  • Management Systems – Innovation is patient money but there must still be systems in place today to ensure the organization can survive the short term to take advantage of the long term effects.
    • Financial – Does the financial system have a way to track the value of innovation to the organization? If you can’t track the impact of innovation to the organization it may be assigned no value and cut.
    • Strategic and Operations – Many organizations have famously created “slack time” where their employees can work on their own projects. Does your operational system have a way of allowing people to nurture their innovations?
    • Performance Management – Does your performance management system focus exclusively on short-term goals such as utilization and quarterly profitability such that employees are dis-incentivized to work on long-term initiatives such as innovation?
    • Leadership – Does leadership understand the criticality of innovation to long term success and model ways to encourage innovation?
    • Career – Are promotions and performance reviews focused around goals that encourage or discourage innovation? Are employees, for instance, penalized for their failures – even when they were attempting to be innovative?
    • Learning and Knowledge – How are learning and knowledge encouraged in the organization? Learning and the development of new knowledge are at the heart of innovation. Are employees encouraged to be continuously learning and developing themselves – beyond a tuition reimbursement program?
  • Innovation Pipeline – Having a defined process for how innovations make it through the system makes it easier for innovators to be innovative. When people don’t understand the social norm, or don’t understand what they need to do next, most will just stop. The more clearly you can articulate the way the organization expects innovations to be nurtured to completion, the more innovations will make it through the pipeline.
  • Innovators and Mentors – Most employees need to know they’re not alone. Feeling safe is based in part on knowing others have been there before. Just having other successful innovators (heroes) is a great start but it’s even better if the successful innovators are also encouraged to mentor other innovators along – to help pull them up.
  • Execution – While innovation is a creative task there’s still an aspect of execution to getting the innovation done. Remember that I define innovation as an idea that’s implemented and implementation requires the ability to execute.
    • Metrics – Are the metrics that you’re choosing effective at measuring progress of an idea through the innovation pipeline?
    • Sustaining Mechanisms – What mechanisms do you have in place to support and push forward (or kill) innovations that get stuck.
    • Value Extraction – How do you ensure that you are able to extract the maximum value from the innovations so that it becomes clear how important or critical innovations are to the organization?

Emotional Drivers

As I’ve alluded to numerous times in my reviews, emotional topics are much harder to turn into explicit knowledge. (See Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Awareness for the difficulty of discussing emotion and The New Edge in Knowledge and Lost Knowledge for more about explicit knowledge.) Books like Who Am I? and Enneagram based Personality Types seek to quantify the factors that make people who they are – or at least communicate the person they’ve become. Most of these drivers are emotional in nature. Despite the challenges with conveying emotional drivers Unleashing Innovation attempts to quantify the factors that lead to emotional engagement in the innovation process in four categories:

  • Dream – Everyone dreams. They want to think about winning the lottery or a future where their current problems are no longer problems. Many employees who have their lives wrapped up in their career or their organization want to see their friends succeed too. They want to be able to live lives that are beyond their current situation. By capturing the dreams of the employees about the organization and wrapping them up in the process that can drive innovation you can harness our desire for a better future.
  • Create – The earliest humans created tools to make their lives better. We as a race are hard wired to create new things. It’s no wonder then that some of the happiest people are those who create or that by enabling employees to create new markets, new product lines, or new divisions through innovations can engage employees in the innovation process.
  • Heroes – Each of us has some desire to be accepted, liked, and looked up to. Heroes, those people who are held up as examples, are the people we want to be. Even the most introverted person wants to be acknowledged for the value they’re bringing. By holding up the success stories – the heroes – you’re creating a natural drive for more people to be innovative so they too can be respected.
  • Spirit – There is a certain indivisibility of the spirit and culture of an organization. It’s easy enough to say that you’re happy when someone else in the organization is successful – instead of you – but to live it is much harder. Creating an organization where everyone truly wants everyone else to be successful and where petty infighting isn’t the norm is a monumental challenge but one that reaps huge rewards not just in innovation but in many other aspects of corporate life as well.

I don’t think that any one book could possibly communicate how to shape the emotional currents of employees. Some of the other books which I’ve reviewed which have elements of the emotional motivation of others are: Diffusion of Innovations, Change or Die, Drive, Primal Leadership, and Collaborative Intelligence.

Sources of Innovators

Innovators come in different shapes. They come from different perspectives. Unleashing Innovation identifies four:

  • Searchers – These are looking to create new opportunities to expand the known map of what the organization can do.
  • Orphans and Outcasts – These are never fully committed but because of that can see the orthodoxies that others cannot. They come to engage themselves more fully in the organization and to shape it more like they want the organization to be.
  • Thrill Seekers – For some an innovation represents the thrill of the chase. If they can do this then what else can they do?
  • Rebels – These are those that have a hidden disdain for some part of what the organization is or has become and they leverage the innovation process to change the organization to be less of what they don’t want and more of what they do.

Integrating Innovation

If you’re looking at trying to embed innovation into every corner of the organization or you’re trying to integrate innovation into your every day, maybe it’s time to pick up Unleashing Innovation.