Whirlpool’s Commitment to Innovation

    Amy Muller

    I will soon mark my 14th anniversary with Strategos and this seems like a good time to reflect on my years as an innovation and strategy consultant.  Over the years, our Innovation principles have endured (see this blog for some of the principles), but we have been challenged to apply them in new ways to new situations. Beginning with our Double Diamond approach, we now have a robust offering that addresses the need for agile commercialization (our Third Diamond). And we have been successfully applying these principles in projects involving Management Innovation – bringing innovation inside to internal processes and practices.

    Innovation everywhere

    But the field of innovation has changed. It now appears everywhere and sometimes in some very peculiar ways. Companies have pared down and become leaner making innovation sometimes harder to pursue with limited resources. Many organizations are pursuing open innovation and many are struggling with it.

    In my Strategos career, I have been lucky to work with great colleagues and great clients in a wide variety of companies – appliances, healthcare, insurance, retail, vacuum cleaners, hotels, energy, office products, food, airlines, packaging, carpet … and baseball cards and military vehicles. But it is still my first client, Whirlpool that has been able to stretch everything I knew about innovation and that I remain most proud of.

    whirlpool

    Starting innovation at Whirlpool

    We started the project in February 2000 in cold, snowy Benton Harbor, Michigan. All the conditions for success were in place. Dave Whitwam, the CEO, had declared that innovation would become a Whirlpool core competence. We had a talented Whirlpool team devoted full time to the project and a company willing and anxious to create the culture and infrastructure for innovation. That first project was a success – we created several platforms for innovation, trained a cadre of innovators, and began the process of creating the systems, processes, and infrastructure for innovation.

    Since then, innovation at Whirlpool has survived and flourished. It survived during the lean years of the housing slump, and survived executive changes. Nancy Tennant, the first director of innovation at Whirlpool and our first client, has authored two books on the subject- Strategic Innovation (2003) and Unleashing Innovation (2008). Even more impressive are the tangible results: at the end of 2011, Whirlpool’s innovation revenue accounted for $3.6 billion, close to 20% of its total revenue.

    Whirlpool’s insights on innovation

    Moisés Noreña, Whirlpool’s Global Director of Innovation for the last 5 years, is well-known in the field of Innovation. His 2013 article on the Management Innovation Exchange(1) provides a thoughtful view of the 10+ year innovation journey at Whirlpool, the challenges they faced and their solutions, all aimed at the long term view of sustaining innovation at Whirlpool. I recently asked Moisés what, in his view, accounted for Whirlpool’s innovation success and stamina. His answers reflect a keen understanding of what it takes to keep innovation alive:

    1. We’ve recognized it as a key to differentiation and growth and is integral to our winning strategy: consumer relevance is the key to creating demand and innovation is the key to creating it.
    2. Innovation hasn’t been a fad, it is now a business process: it is discussed, reviewed, budgeted, tracked as we do share, volume, profit plans, etc.
    3. We’ve recognized innovation is a journey and not a destination, we have a sustained attention to assessing our capability, infusing new thinking and keeping it alive

    The Whirlpool journey is not for every company. But for those companies looking to build a deep and lasting innovation capability ….there is no better place to look than Whirlpool.

    (1) “Whirlpool’s Innovation Journey: An on-going quest for a rock-solid and inescapable innovation capability,”