But how do you embed such a mindset throughout a global corporation, so that innovation becomes the company culture? In 1911, the year of its foundation, Whirlpool was a local domestic appliance manufacturer, based in Benton Harbour, Michigan, US.

Today, with its ten brands, 68,000 employees, and offices in fourteen countries, the Whirlpool Corporation is the world’s largest home appliances producer and marketer, delivering to consumers in more than 170 countries a wide range of domestic solutions.

This dramatic expansion started in the 1980s through an acquisition policy that brought Whirlpool to secure key positions in Europe, North America, Latin America and India, and to open new possibilities for growth within the South East Asian market.

In the first years, Whirlpool’s expansion policy was focused on penetrating the unexplored non-American markets in a soft, unobtrusive way, levering on the support that the acquired (and locally renowned) brands could provide.

Rather than superimposing its culture and methodologies onto the newly joint companies, the Corporation invested time on developing intimate knowledge of the new markets and their consumers.

It was only ten years after the beginning of the expansion policy, in the 1990s, that Whirlpool decided it was high time they refocused a number of key functions – including technology and product development – in order to create a real global approach, the so-called global platform approach.

This created a series of global processes for innovative product development and manufacturing that has resulted in a reduction of the number of platforms for the final solutions.

Contrary to the previous situation, today Whirlpool’s products share common parts and technologies, developed on a corporate level, whilst unique and innovative features and designs that appeal to regional consumer preferences are applied on a regional level.

Other improvement initiatives include a lean manufacturing methodology that ensures quality levels and reduction of costs and cycle times.

The underlying element that drove these changes and that has now transformed into the corporate culture is a strong focus on people. Consumers, obviously, but also the workforce, that is empowered in many ways in the development of innovative solutions. 

Being innovative at Whirlpool is a must – not only for product developers, engineers, technologists and designers. It is a must for everyone, and employees are encouraged to feed innovative ideas within the company about any area of activity.

This approach is based on the idea that innovation is a mindset, an attitude, and a commitment rather than the by-product of a one-off brainstorming session amongst professionals. 

This long-term operation is already enjoying success as Whirlpool navigates towards its ultimate objective: to win consumer’s hearts and minds, to establish the ultimate customer loyalty, to be in every home, everywhere...

Paolo Tognella, Director of the Engineering Centre of Whirlpool Europe and one of the creators of the corporation’s global product development process, tells us about how new ideas are created and developed at Whirlpool, from the ‘fuzzy front end’ through to development, and how people, all people, can actively contribute in this challenging task.

You created, almost ten years ago, the product creation process that is now globally applied throughout the Whirlpool Corporation. What are its characteristics and what makes it different from other processes of similar industries?

At Whirlpool we call our product development process Customer To Customer Process (C2C). There is one specific reason for this. The process is thoroughly focused on people.

The end user is our reference, not only at the beginning of the process, during the idea generation phase, but until the very end. The process consists of a series of tollgates, decision making moments, in which the real user benefits are analysed and evaluated.

A ‘go/no go’ decision is made at any of the tollgates based on a number of criteria; in particular, the lack of a clear user advantage/benefit means the end of the project.

C2C helps us in balancing innovation and risk, allowing and fostering risk taking at the ‘fuzzy front end’ of the process and minimising it when the product has gone further in the development.

It also facilitates timely, synchronised execution of different tasks – for instance engineering development and creation of marketing communications activities for the launch of the product – by forcing together all the different stakeholders in each project team.

Representatives from Corporate Technology & Engineering Development, Industrial Design & Usability, Marketing & Sales, Global Product Development, Brand Management all work together within the C2C, sharing activities and results throughout the various milestones.

Last, but not least, through continuous evaluation C2C allows us to learn from each project and to improve on the long term.

How and where are new ideas generated?

We invest a lot of time and resources on understanding the consumer and on sharing such understanding within the whole organisation. This means that knowledge of our customer’s needs is not the privilege of one selected group of individuals, but the basis for us all to create ideas for new solutions.

Ideas are normally generated through brainstorm sessions amongst all the stake-holders (ie, those who will form the project teams that will work throughout the C2C). But they can also come from an individual, and we foster this in many ways.

The wealth of new ideas that spring out of these initiatives is not a guarantee of success in itself. The route from idea to successful product is long and bumpy. Ideas need to be analysed, selected, worked out in different forms, matched with technological know-how and business strategies... In other words, they need to be channelled within a process, which should be as flexible as possible in order not to lose the freshness of the innovative outlook.

At Whirlpool, we have fine-tuned an idea evaluation and validation process that we call the ‘double diamond’ approach. Such an approach is based on the concept of divergence then convergence, opening up to market, societal and individual consumer trends, then using such insight to evaluate the ideas; work out the remaining ideas further, then evaluating according to more detailed specifications, and so on.

Selected concepts will be those that truly answer people’s current or future needs, that fit into our business strategy, brand positioning and organisation, and that are technically feasible either through in-house know-how or through a partner’s.

How has innovation become a culture and a mindset at Whirlpool in the last few years? 

Innovation has always been the core of our business. Just think that in 1957 Whirlpool built a visionary space kitchen for the US Air Force, in which astronauts could prepare and eat food in zero gravity conditions.

As a follow up of that we were then awarded the contract to develop the feeding and waste management system for the Gemini project that formed the basis for future feeding systems! So, innovation is not new to Whirlpool and has always been part of our culture. 

What has changed in the last few years is the more conscious attention that we put on innovation and on its expansion throughout the corporation. A few years ago, we invested in the development of an innovation process (the ‘double diamond’) and in a set of tools that would help people to think ‘outside of the box’.

Seventy-five people from around the world were selected to learn these techniques and thus became ‘mentors’ for others. Since then, we have developed a full training program for all employees, instituted a knowledge management intranet site and an innovation database that provides methodologies, tools, resources and information to help any employee work out an innovative idea. A dedicated budget is also available for the exploration of special initiatives within the company.

The great achievement of all these initiatives is that they have helped us all realise that innovation was not only the domain of engineers, designers, marketers and that creative thinking could help our corporation in all fields of activities, such as purchasing, procurement, sales etc. Also, they have certainly made our people, all people, very committed and excited about the new. Which is always a good thing.

The end user is at the centre of all your activities. How do you obtain up-to-date and relevant information on your customers and how do you use it in the different phases of product development?

First of all, we have a dedicated Usability Group that has the task of monitoring people and of providing information on consumers’ actual and latent needs, as well as on their lifestyle aspirations and personal dreams.

Usability experts tackle such challenges through a wide range of tools and techniques. These vary from group to personal interviews, from user tests to collective ‘imagineering’ sessions, from living with the consumers to unveil their perception of technology to proposing them a concept in the development stage in order to make vital amendments.

Usability is heavily involved in the creation of new ideas but they also provide consumer reactions to concepts that are already within the product creation process, thus guaranteeing the human-focus of the final solution. Usability follows a product throughout its life, conducting trial sessions before and after its purchase.

Their insights enrich not only products but also other elements that make up the overall brand experience, such as packaging, communications, points of sale...

Secondly, we develop our own future explorations and test them. On an R&D level, each year, we illustrate through a real, functioning future home all the technologies that our Corporate Technology & Engineering Development people are exploring and the new product ideas they have originated.

We are talking here about solutions that consumers could see on the shelves three to five years from now. Through such an exhibition, open to a selected group of Whirlpool’s stake-holders, we give a glimpse of a technologically feasible future and receive valuable customer focused input that helps us steer research and development towards an even more people-oriented direction. 

On a more visionary level, say five to ten years from now, our Industrial Design Group has carried out some explorations, for instance about the future of microwaving or of fabric care. Such visions consist of a series of models for future applications, based on an analysis of social trends and evolution of cultures.

Whilst the R&D exhibits are kept rather secret, obviously because of their quite likely realisation within a relatively short time, we use these design activities also in our communication, to create brand equity but also to obtain feedback from our stakeholders at large.

What are Whirlpool’s most significant innovations of the last few years?

The Polara Refrigerated Range, a combined oven and refrigeration system, that allows you to prepare a meal up to a day ahead and keep them at the correct storing temperature to then heat them up when required.

The Personal Valet, a clothes vitalising system that removes wrinkles and odours and gets clothes ready to wear in thirty minutes with no hassle.

Maximo, the only microwave that can fit in a corner and that offers you extra kitchen space on its top.

Some of these innovations are certainly high tech, others are simply the result of understanding people and customising existing technologies for more people-focused results. Innovation is not isolated in technology or design, or any other disciplines. Innovation is thinking with the consumer, for the consumer.  

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