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“Every company wants to have growth and everybody wants to be part of a dynamic, growing organization: the fun of launching new products, the idea that new processes are coming to our factory floor . . . everybody wants that. Also with growth is the opportunity for more experiences, for career development, for advanced job security.”
These are the words of the CEO and President of Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics explaining why investing in innovation is so important to enabling sustainable growth.
“And it’s not just innovation. It is sustainable innovation. It is part of the fabric of who we are every single day. This is really what we are after.”
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics is a business where 80% of sales are from a business model based on engineer to customer interaction and greater than 35% of sales are from products less than 5 years old.
We share common processes in safety, IT, and finance across nine decentralized business units with 48 focused plants throughout North American, Europe and Asia. However, each business is entrepreneurial in how they understand individual customer needs, co-designing unique polymer solutions for them.
This balance of freedom while following common processes has proved successful, with 10X growth over the last twenty years and very good safety and financial performance. But we wanted more - - - double digit growth, sustained year over year.
Our solution was “to innovate”, building on our entrepreneurial spirit. Our biggest challenge was not to change our business model but to build into it ways to create transformational insights, ideas and solutions.
We see innovation as a process, one that can be learned, practiced and made part of what we do every day. It contains a number of elements, but here we describe only two.
- Fitting innovation processes to our needs (we call this “fit for purpose”); and
- Building innovation capabilities in everyone through training, practice & coaching.
These two elements led us to three problem statements.
- How to pick innovation tools and processes that would complement our co-design model and embed new transformational methods directly into current responsibilities;
- How to uncover enablers to leverage and obstacles to overcome in creating our “fit for purpose” program; and
- How to execute a training program to make these tools and processes part of what our organization would simply do naturally later on?
The solution we developed for these problem statements had five parts: survey, search for processes and tools, resource the program, develop tools, and train employees.
Begin with a Survey
We wanted a program that fit the unique needs of our business so we began with a survey focused on how to reach our aggressive 5 year growth target of double digit growth. We used an outside resource to survey our leadership team and a team of global, cross-functional managers. The three most important questions in shaping our training program were:
- What does innovation mean to you?
- With this definition in mind, what obstacles get in your way when trying to innovate?
- What about you or our company structure enables you to innovate?
The Survey Results
The results of the survey gave us a strong foundation to begin our program.
What got in the way of innovation?
- “We need to better define our Core Competencies”;
- “We don’t always look at broader, market needs”;
- “We don’t have a structured “front-end” in our stage/gate process”; and
- “We need to listen more to our customers rather than pushing our solutions”.
What were enablers to innovation?
- “We are close to our customers using a co-development business approach”;
- “We have strong technical competencies that are valued”;
- “We have robust global & local design/application engineering”;
- “We are quick to implement good ideas in businesses”; and
- “We have action-oriented businesses with a strong entrepreneurial spirit”.
Search for Process & Tools
The leadership team sought out a group of passionate, volunteer employees to research program options. A 12 member Innovation Council was chosen. The final members were anonymously selected based on letters describing why innovation was important to them. Their primary mission was to study and learn what other companies had done in successfully implementing innovation programs.
The Council and Leadership Team concluded that, while there were many different approaches to innovation being applied in the outside world, no enterprise-wide, systematic and comprehensive programs existed. There were a number of good focused training programs only addressing one small part of the organization or a single issue. The conclusion: the innovation processes and tools we needed must be built step by step.
Resource the Program
The next step was to find a team to develop, train and embed the best processes into our business.
For our lead resource, we chose someone with previous success in business process implementation. As a Global Business Director, she had used innovation to increase sales and profit. As our new Director of Innovation Processes, her focus was to find the best processes for us, train our team, and embed the processes into the organization.
Three additional members with diverse backgrounds (sales, process engineering and marketing) were hired next. We initially looked for people with good training skills, but found after implementing the processes, that we also needed facilitators and coaches.
The first thing we did was pick a name for our program. eXplore together was to be our brand.
What was our brand promise? Everyone in our organization is valuable and creative and will be involved in the innovation process. Innovation and creativity are processes and we will commit to learning the skills, practicing them, and making them part of what we do every day. These skills will become our competencies.
Once we created our internal brand, we developed a training program. The program was designed to fill the gaps that we previously identified as obstacles, and to complement our enablers. The training program was built on three platforms: People, Strategy and Solutions
Our Strategy Processes & Tools
“Let’s deeply understand market fit and needs . . . and then solve”
The key concepts for the platforms were taken from “Innovation to the Core” by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson. The book discusses getting to transformational strategy by looking at business through a series of lenses:
- What are your Core Competencies (Where are you great)?
- What are Customers’ Needs (Outcomes)?
- What are your Orthodoxies (Creatively challenging your business assumptions)?
- What are the Future Trends (Where are our future opportunities)?
We focused first on our Core Competencies (finding our fit to market applications/segments), then on understanding customers outcomes (within these market applications/segments). We are now building a course for “Future Trends” and tools for challenging assumptions is in our Solutions platform.
Our People & Solutions Processes and Tools
“Let’s have a process to solve the market needs and everyday business challenges”
The People and Solutions platform focus on processes and tools for enabling creativity in individuals and teams.
In studying creativity as a process that can be learned, we discovered an interesting question: “Why is it that, at age eight, most children think of themselves as highly creative and yet by age 18 that number has fallen to about 20%?” Pablo Picasso summarized the dilemma this way: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” What happens to this creativity? What happens to anything that we do not practice? It simply goes away.
Our People platform develops this skill again as a capability in everyone. Our Solutions platform certifies creativity as competency. The program, like Six Sigma, certifies capabilities at different levels.
Our program, still in pilot, is outlined below. Level 1 provides tools and creates awareness of our program. We are training everyone on this level. Levels 2, 3 and 4 compare to a Six Sigma green belt, requiring employees to work on simple and intermediate challenges. Level 5 compares to a black belt and enables employees to work on advanced challenges. Level 6 compares to a master black belt where employees are certified as master trainers.
This is where the comparison stops. While Six Sigma’s focuses on process improvement, our People and Solutions platforms focus on incremental and breakthrough creative solutions to challenges that need creativity.
Training: Making Innovation Part of our Jobs Every Day
What was our approach? We started thinking we would only need to train. Now, for most of our courses we think the best learning model is to: 1. Train; 2. Use the tools on real challenges; and 3. Have coaches help people get better using the tools.
Next, under each platform, we describe what we tried and what models are working best.
Our Strategy Platform: Core Competencies and New Opportunity Blueprinting
Core Competencies (Finding “where we are great”)
Discovering Core Competencies is not a training course. It is a designed creative session facilitated by a Level 5 Creative Facilitator and Coach. It is designed for ten to eighteen diverse members of a business unit. In order to gain the most insights, we advise businesses to bring in the most experienced members of their team in all functions. The outcome of the session is to identify a set of competencies that when placed together form the Core Competencies - - - the areas in which you provide unique value to customers.
This session was not originally designed to be a creative session. Instead, it used traditional strategic planning methods and a few creative tools that helped distinguish core competencies from capabilities. The outcomes were hit and miss.
The Process Steps:
Our best success story has come from our Bearings business unit. This business supplies parts which make opening and closing a car door feel great and provide the feel of control when steering a car. The business supplies parts made of high performance plastics and metal which are placed in car door hinges and in steering columns. The business unit was supplying significant hidden value to customers in many different areas, but failed to realize the key benefits they were offering.
Although we used our traditional approach in our session with this business unit, the outcomes were excellent. The team identified 15-20 competencies and four core competencies upon which they have built an excellent strategy. They used the outcomes from the sessions to prioritize 300 possible market applications down to ten with the best fit to their core. These ten market applications used the next process: New Opportunity Blueprinting to find customer’s needs.
Some other sessions were not as successful. In some cases, the mix and experience of the participants affected the results and in others the business needed to build more competencies. These outcomes made the Innovation team realize that these Core Competency sessions were business challenges that needed advanced creativity tools. We decided to design future sessions using Level 5 creativity tools. To design them we needed to get a better understanding of the business unit’s capabilities, competitive landscape, and critical success factors.
Using the creative process and level 5 facilitation tools to uncover core competencies is helping the innovation team fit the design to the actual business challenge.
Finding Market Needs (New Opportunity Blueprinting)
New Opportunity Blueprinting (shown below) is a business to business process using step by step tools, in cross-functional teams, to better understand market segment needs. The process takes 6-12 months to complete. It allows us to identify the needs of market segments, focuses on “the front-end” (stages 0, 1, 2 and 3) and develops listening and questioning capabilities critical to gaining the best outcomes from any customer meeting.
We use our ideal model (train, practice, coach) for this course and it is working well. Below are more details within this model that have helped us successfully embedding this process in the business?
Finding unspoken, unmet market needs through New Opportunity Blueprinting
One: We usually chose markets with a good fit to core to learn the process. (Businesses that chose to learn the process on market segments further from their core found it took longer to go through the process and often had to find an expert to better understand the segment before starting).
Two: We carefully selected teams. For each region and market application, we selected a least seven people with a good mix of sales, technical and marketing experience. We picked team leaders, usually Market Managers, who could develop a good plan, keep the team focused and drive results. We helped them understand how to apply the process before the workshop. (Some businesses did not train enough people for certain regions. In some cases, the process simply did not take off and it others it went much slower.)
Three: We trained teams for a few days and we worked on their project during training. By session end, teams had good execution plans and strong questioning and listening skills to uncover customer needs. (Teams with markets far from the core or with little market knowledge needed 3-4 weeks or longer to gather secondary market information and develop plans.)
Four: The next step after training was to begin interviewing customers within 4 weeks of the course. Before the interview, teams practiced with a Blueprinting Coach. The coach attended the first interview with the team and helped them debrief after. (Teams with strong plans that started customer interviews within 4 weeks of training are going much faster in the process than those that did not. All teams that practiced with a coach before and debriefed after got better outcomes on Discovery Interviews.)
Five: We scheduled web-conferences every 4 weeks to start to track progress and share best practices.
Six: Towards the end of the Discovery Interview process we had our 2nd workshop to uncover market insights. We learned tools and prepared data for the next set of quantitative (Preference) interviews. Steps four and five followed.
To date, we have trained approximately 500 people who have conducted over 200 customer interviews to develop market insights (sets of unobvious & important customer needs that are not being satisfied) for 30 market segments. For some we are testing solutions in our lab and have some great ideas. The coaching and follow-up over the life of the project has helped to embed it in the businesses.
The benefits of New Product Blueprinting have been numerous (i.e., seeing customers we normally would not get to see, accelerating market learning from years to months, gaining short-term sales we would not have otherwise and developing a long-term robust product pipeline where sales success rate is increased). From our Market Managers we are hearing quotes like:
- “I think the first thing [about New Opportunity Blueprinting] is the customers are genuinely intrigued.”
- “We have enthusiastic customers - - - they say they wish we could have done this a year ago. They are engaged and are very open and willing to share their challenges and ideal outcomes.”
- “We have customers who now fly in for our meeting just to give us everything they think we need to know.”
- “By talking to different people you get different views. You get ideas of what they want but also what is good result, what is a bad result, and what is an exceptional result. That is some great information to bring back to the organization so we can feel confident and proud of what we are doing.”
People & Solutions
This section and the next describe training approaches that have been successful and lessons learned.
Level 1 Awareness
Everyone learning some creative tools & processes
Individuals and teams can self-facilitate outcomes
Level 1 is a full day course (Basics of Innovative Thinking). It is based on Edward deBono’s parallel and lateral thinking tools and actively engages people in learning and using these tools on their own individual and business challenges. It has three parts:
- An introduction to what innovation is to Saint Gobain Performance Plastics
- An exercise to understand individual and team innovation styles
- Learning and practicing creative tools for parallel and lateral thinking
Our learning goals for participants are to:
- Be aware of what innovation is and why it is important to the business
- Be aware of how to mix different innovation styles to enable innovation
- Know how to use parallel and lateral thinking on personal and business challenges
Approach and lessons learned:
This first course was important to laying the foundation for our innovation program and we had two thoughts for execution:
- Do we roll-out training to everyone to create broad awareness or
- Do we roll-out in piloted stages using the approach
- Select teams within a site or business to learn
- Train them on the basic tools and create action plans to use at end of each session
- Plan follow-up coaching sessions as they practice the tools on their challenges
- Find out what worked and did not work and create best practices for future implementations
We started with approach #1 in North America because we wanted to spread the innovation message quickly. And we continued this approach a few months later in Europe. The results:
- We had an overall 90% satisfaction rating on the course
- After 6 months about 10% of the organization were using the tools in selected areas within the business; the people that had passion for the tools took the time to make them work in their departments
- No one site was using across the board
With this approach, some people were using the tools personally and on business challenges. The fear was that although the tools were good, they may disappear without having more visibility.
One person, Eric, uses Six Thinking Hats with his teams and the associative thinking tool, Random Word himself. He says “The tools we learned are something we can use on a day to basis and I find the [lateral tools] push me outside of my patterned thinking. I come up with really new ideas that would not have had [without using them]. One tool I love is known as random word. It is a way to use a random word to trigger really unique ideas. I use it on my own to come up with ideas I never would have imagined.”
One of our managers, Sheri, has this to say “As a team lead I and those in my department insist on using six hat language and lateral thinking tools. We have used the tools on three major projects. The teams on these projects are mostly hourly personnel and we created little “cheat sheets” so everyone uses the same type of language in the meetings. And the good news is that it is becoming part of language. In meetings individuals will say, “Let me put on the Black Hat for a moment.”
“We had four managers passionate about using the tools in their teams. We see three key benefits. The tools allow teams to focus on mission and solving problems not debating different perspectives. They allow us to focus on emotions but in a constructive way. They eliminate finger-pointing and allows us to plan for actions and stay on track. Both of my teams using [Basics of Innovative Thinking tools] met out goals for 2012.”
“And my only concern is that not everyone is using the tools at the site. We need to use this format at all levels. The tools are great but they could disappear unless we give them more visibility.”
We had completed training in North America of about 600 people when we decided to try a different approach in Europe where we had already trained 200 people. For the remaining 200 in Europe we piloted some training sessions using approach #2. These were small sites where the site manager and department team leaders would start using the tools with their teams on everyday challenges. Four months later, the results were:
- We still had an overall 90% satisfaction rating;
- Entire departments were using tools regularly for everyday challenges; and
- one site manager was using across the board
The site manager, Gino, had this to say about using the program: “I love using creativity to help solve our problems and I wanted everyone on my team to learn the same tools together. Our site, like most, wants to grow sales and profits in 2013. To do this, we needed a good plan to solve the things getting in the way of reaching this goal and the tools to help our team think about solutions in the most creative ways. Right after learning parallel tools of six thinking hats and some lateral creativity tools we started to focus on one of our challenges: How to minimize customer complaints? We ran three different six thinking hat sessions to uncover key obstacles, create ideas and actions to solve our challenge. Using these tools we were able to get more input, ideas and create a comprehensive plan using all of our diverse innovation styles. We are planning to learn more tools in Levels 2 and 3 to help solve more of our challenges related to growing in sales and profits in 2013. My goal is to enable creativity in everyone at our site!”
We are piloting a third approach as we complete the first round of training in Europe and begin training in Asia. We will circle back in North America with this approach.
- Select sites with teams ready to use creativity tools to change the way they doing things today (the process enablers)
- Understand the key challenges the sites are facing and how creative tools can help solve them
- Select a few of the key challenges we will help solve using Basic Innovative Thinking tools (Six Hats and some lateral tools)
- Select pilot teams to train
- Train them on the basic tools and create action plans at end of each session to begin using tools to solve identified challenge(s)
- Innovation coach will design with the team the sequence of tools to use on each challenge
- Innovation coach practices with team in using tools and even attends the first few sessions
- Innovation coach debriefs with team after the session
- Plan regular follow-up coaching sessions with teams to review progress, next steps and lessons learned.
This approach is similar to the one we have implemented for New Opportunity Blueprinting and it should translate well into this Level 1 People platform.
Certifying Competencies to enable Creativity in Others from Levels 2 through 6
Ben Zander, world-renowned conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, had a sudden epiphany at age 45. In his video, Shining Eyes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrGAJ7hVh10 ) he says: “suddenly I realized the conductor doesn’t make a sound; he depends on his ability to make other people powerful. And this totally changed the way I approached conducting. My job now was to awaken the possibility in other people.”
This awakening of the possibilities in others is what our Solutions platform is all about. We look for people that have developed a passion for creativity and are using Six Thinking Hats and creative, lateral tools to help their teams solve problems. These are the type of people we select to begin Level 2 training in order to reach Level 3 Creative Facilitator certification.
The levels which are described below develop capabilities through the basic approach of setting challenges, learning skills, practicing and working with a coach.
We have used this process on 10 business challenges, 3 of them advanced and we have gotten results like “reducing prototyping of new parts by 2 weeks in a one day session and in 2 days redesigning a way to produce materials complete with details for planning implementation.”
Specific ideal steps for this process are below:
- Select a site where the site manager wants to use creativity to solve key business challenges
Develop with them a list of challenge statements and categorize these into issue types:
One: Do these challenges require creative solutions?
- No: Issues like “where should we go to dinner, what metrics should we use for this program or what time-line do we need to implement value selling? Do not require many creative tools. These are not challenges we will solve with this Solutions Platform.
- Yes: Issues like “How do we reduce waste on this machine” or “How to we improve customer service levels in our business” or “How to create faster proto-types for our customers?” do require creative tools and are part of this Solutions Platform.
Two: Are these challenges Simple, Intermediate or Advanced? Knowing the type of challenge we have tells use the Creative Facilitation Level needed to help teams solve them.
- Simple Challenges are like “How we reduce waste in this machine?” They usually are in one department and have one or two stakeholders
- Intermediate Challenges are like “How do we improve customer service levels in our business?” They may have more than one stakeholder and cross departments.
- Advanced Challenges are like: “How to create faster prototypes for our customers?” They have three of more stakeholders, solving may involve many resources and capital and the impact on the business is high.
- One: Do these challenges require creative solutions?
- Select at least 3-4 simple issues in which teams of people going through Level 2 will work on for two to three months while in training
- Prepare team members for training sessions with pre-learning material.
Hold 3 day workshop to learn fundamentals of facilitating creativity
- Learning principles of creativity and how to use creative tools that are good for simple challenges
- Learning facilitation skills (including listening and questioning which will help with facilitating difficult situations and facilitating creative tools)
- Learning the art of improvisation (using exercises to help teams experience creativity)
- Teams are selected to solve simple challenges
- Innovation Level 5 Coach designs tool sequences and Level 3 to 5 Creative Facilitator co-facilitates session(s) with Level 2 Creative Facilitator
- Level 2 creative facilitator debriefs with innovation coach after.
- Teams meet every month to review progress, next steps and lessons learned
- In 2-3 months, hold 2 day workshop to learn more skills
- Follow steps 6-9 again
- In 1-2 additional months Level 2 Creative Facilitators go to 1 ½ day session which : Tests for Understanding and requires fully facilitated “on-own” on mock challenge”
Other levels follow the same training path. The content and timing simply differ.
We have only begun to pilot this program with eight people. Two have followed the above ideal training program and six others have followed parts. The two that followed the entire program are successfully facilitating creative session on their own. Two others, with less practice, are close to becoming certified Level 3. The rest, with little to no practice are still on Level 2.
Our certified level 3 creative facilitator Mark says “Before going through the program I had no idea how to get the best solutions from teams. Now I know the process of creativity, the tools and the type of questions I need to ask teams to help them to use them best [on my first facilitated creative session] amazing ideas can come from everyone and from places I didn’t even suspect. Through this process we found a diamond among the team in a maintenance operator who brought to our 2nd session a fully prototyped idea. It was eventually picked to be shown to the customer.”
Having learned from our first pilot, we are launching pilots in North American and Europe at sites that have already achieved success using Level 1 tools.
- Starting with the premise that everyone can be part of innovation and that innovation is a process that can be learned, trained, and followed at the individual, team and business level ensures that everyone is engaged.;
- Fear is reduced when everyone is involved, the message is simple and the platform centers on building what they have;
- No special human resource programs or compensation schemes are needed since everyone is engaged and it is the normal way in which you will work;
- Starting with a survey to define what innovation is to your company and to identify enablers and obstacles provides a good basis for the programs you will need and will help with communication of program later.
- Building a “tool box” for various elements of the organization and for various stages of innovation evolution allows for flexibility and adaptability in adopting them in the business.
- Tailoring the program to enhance your business model, not change it, builds employee trust and buy-in; which, in turn, opens the door for change.
- Identifying and starting the process with enablers helps to build momentum;
- When people see positive results from applying the process, they start change their own behavior - - - you don’t do it for them;
- And when businesses start to get results, they become the sales people for the process. Other peers jump on board. The process takes a life within the business and success stories drive others to embrace.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
- Identify innovation enablers and weaknesses and consider tools to build each;
- Engage cross-functional teams of people in the program planning process;
- Start with the premise that everyone is creative and that innovation is a process and tool box that can be trained learned and practiced by everyone (just like math, music or a sport can be learned). Stress that it is not just the work of R&D and marketing.
- Build a tool box of skills for various parts of the organization (individual, team and business unit) and for various stages of process. Pick practical tools that will build on your identified enablers and strengthen your weaknesses, all focused on getting results.
Tailor, train and execute
- Tailor you program to enhance your business model, not change it
- Dedicate at least one resource to learning, training and coaching the processes
- Pick and train on the tool box most needed by each business unit
- And when training is complete, facilitate, coach, plan with and support the business to get results from the process
- Start with simple measures like number of people trained and number of success stories.
- Add other metrics as processes evolve.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics leadership team deserves credit for their vision and support of innovation as a process and supporting the processes in their businesses. The Performance Plastics Innovation Council for finding tools and processes with best fit to PPL. The innovation team deserves credit for further developing tools and training and coaching individuals, teams and business units on them. And, most of all, the businesses deserve credit for adopting and executing them - - - turning learning into success stories and some early results.