Innovation that directly benefits the customer is a key element to success for manufacturers. Even with the best products, competitive value and outstanding service, no manufacturer can afford to remain static while competitors, technology and customers move forward.

I personally know the value of stressing innovation within the organization. At Henny Penny, we talk about it, we invest in it, and we celebrate it as a company.

To oversimplify, Henny Penny focuses on making excellent products, building partnerships and employees. But every company says this. The key to valuable innovation =- and ultimately success -- is commitment. The path to practical, meaningful innovation begins with:

  1. Asking challenging questions such as, "How can we be more creative, scalable, effective?"
  2. Eating, breathing and planning for opportunities to innovate -- both internally and externally.
  3. Regularly measuring growth and improving upon it.
There are many, many aspects of innovation and cultivating a culture of openness and forward thought we could discuss. Let's focus on the first element above: asking the right questions.

At first, it may seem easy to suggest asking questions. After all, asking questions doesn't really change anything ... does it?

All that depends on A) the kinds of questions being asked and B) how receptive decision makers within your company are to the doors those questions open.

Some sample questions to ask that can help you rethink how you're affecting current processes and maybe create some new ones:

  • How are we measuring success for each department? Each division? Does this measurement truly reflect what each organization does? Are the goals for success directly related to the company's mission?
  • Are we consistently and thoroughly hearing what our customers are saying about our products and services? Are we able to drill down into survey data for patterns and trends?
  • Is our company's leadership willing to be challenged and proven wrong? Are we open to new ideas from anyone within the company? By what the company is doing, are we showing that we value something else more than innovation and serving our customers?
  • Does our corporate culture genuinely encourage and reward innovative thinking and problem solving? What programs and training do we have in place to foster original thinking, an open environment and creative solutions? Are we willing to be assessed and make changes, however painful, to become more agile and forward thinking?
In the last few years, asking these types of questions helped Henny Penny create the Evolution Elite line of open fryers , which have helped revolutionize oil usage and the filtering process -- which in turn greatly impacted the areas of cost and energy savings and sustainability.

The website Innovation Excellence recently posted a list of things to consider when you're seeking to energize innovative approaches at your company -- and they reinforce the need to reward creative thinking and being willing to ask hard questions.

Any organization can hold brainstorming meetings, form committees and plot product roadmaps. It takes a different kind of company to take the next steps of actively pursuing an innovative spirit.

Rob Connelly is the president of Henny Penny Corp., an Eaton, Ohio-based manufacturer of foodservice equipment.