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Innovation: managing ideas at scale

This article appears in the issue July/August 2017, [Volume 26, Issue 7]
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Innovation is a hot topic these days, with disruptive business models and new products challenging established leaders. It covers a wide range of diverse concepts and processes but falls into four major categories:

  • product innovation, which results in a completely new product such as the Apple iPh
  • operational innovation to improve an existing process, which results in an outcome such as speeding time to market;
  • customer experience innovation, such as the use of chatbots and virtual reality experiences; and
  • business model innovation, exemplified by Airbnb and Uber.

Those categories are described by Jeremiah Owyang, founder of the Crowd Companies Council. Different types of activities can be used to promote innovation, ranging from tours of companies known for their innovation programs to establishing a team focused on innovation. The key to success, however, is to develop an innovation culture that supports and encourages innovation.

Innovation is by definition creative, but it is also a process with logical steps and associated content, and therefore it can be managed by software designed for that purpose. The software exists at the interface between tacit and explicit knowledge, since it captures people’s thoughts and then represents them in a structured and accessible way.

Bridgestone Americas, the large tire and rubber products company, has excelled in lean manufacturing and optimizing execution in manufacturing. However, over the years, tires have become commoditized, with brand and performance becoming less important than price. Moreover, the production of low-cost tires in China has put intense price pressure on established brands. As a result, Bridgestone realized it needed to come up with new business models, products and services.

To promote a culture of innovation, Bridgestone looked into software that would help capture ideas and move them through an evaluation process into the R&D stage. Johan Van Langendonck, Bridgestone’s consumer solutions lead for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and business innovation lead for EMEA, was responsible for selecting and implementing the software solution for his region.

“We realized we needed to transform our organization from a tire company to the broader vision of a mobility service provider to remain competitive,” says Van Langendonck. “The first step was to create a shift in the mindset of our employees.” Bridgestone’s North American division had already selected an innovation management software product, but Bridgestone EMEA opted to conduct a search nevertheless, to make sure the group found the best match for its needs.

A digital idea box

After considering several options, Bridgestone EMEA ended up selecting Planbox, the same product chosen by the North American division. “Being able to share information easily with our other offices was an advantage,” Van Langendonck says, “but in addition, we could brand the user interface rather than having the vendor’s label, which was a feature we wanted. We also felt very comfortable with the Planbox team, which was responsive to our questions, understood the innovation process and cared about our success.”

The first use of Planbox was a guided contest in which people were asked to contribute ideas on a predefined challenge. “The initial use was simple,” Van Langendonck explains, “basically a digital idea box. We also conducted a significant educational program to help our employees get a common understanding of what innovation means. When an idea came out of a workshop, we would log it into Planbox and then go through a scoring process to select those we were going to incubate.”

Bridgestone is working on innovation in three categories: business innovation, technology and continuous improvement. “We are in the early stages of our program,” Van Langendonck says, “so we cannot yet be sure everyone understands these categories. It is a learning process.” It was not expected that participation would be universal, but Van Langendonck believes that more employees are understanding the value of innovation. “People who submitted ideas and got feedback felt they were being heard,” says Van Langendonck. “As they moved through the additional stages, the feedback got more intense.”

The metrics provided by Planbox have proven helpful to Bridgestone. “Before Planbox, we did not know how many ideas were within the company or were being lost in the cycle,” Van Langendonck says. “Now they are stored in the platform’s repository and we can see how many ideas were submitted, from what departments and within what context. We can also create and export some standard dashboards and ad hoc reports.” In addition, people can browse through the ideas and filter by category, submitter, keywords, etc., to see what others have done. He particularly likes the monthly reports that are pushed out by Planbox. “The proactive nature of these reports, which provide rates of contribution and ideas for further engaging our employees, is very helpful,” he says.

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