Clorox's Clean Sweep

Sept. 18, 2006
How innovation planning sustains a 93-year-old company.

In our first article, "CEOs Need To Embrace Innovation," we demonstrated why today's business world demands that companies cultivate long-lasting success with a process of innovation that is predictable and consistent. In this second article, an interview with John Barnaba, the Clorox Company's vice president of Applied Technology, Barnaba discusses why consistent, planned innovation has worked at Clorox.

Which factors and realities of the marketplace inspired Clorox to embrace a disciplined innovation-planning agenda from the boardroom to the mailroom?

Our consumers are consistently asking for more value in terms of new, unique features we can bring to the table at the right price, and innovation drives all of that for us. On the one hand, we're decentralized in that we're going to market with a broad range of consumer products, from our namesake bleach to Kingsford charcoal to Glad bags and wraps. On the other hand, we're centralized in how we do it, so we can drive decentralization out of the system. The way we do that is the way we organize -- we need to apply the same processes across the organization.

When most people think of innovation, they think of a creative spark. How do you consistently implement a disciplined innovation-planning agenda throughout a corporate structure?

Over time, our executive committee -- the most senior management of our company -- adopted a process mentality. That is, let's not reinvent the wheel every time out. Let's make the "how'' the same each time, even though the "whats'' -- the outputs that we're looking for -- are very different. Innovation gets driven that way. Part of that is all about process and part of that is reach. We need to find unique ways to develop innovative approaches to what we do, and we've become more and more adept at being able to do things the same way over and over to drive effectiveness and efficiency in the way we get work done. We also need to be able to create virtual scale in the process that we use.

Can you offer an example of how innovation planning has transformed the day-to-day corporate culture at Clorox?

Clorox has been using a process to consistently manage our innovation portfolio across our businesses. Our approach to new product commercialization, for example, features formal check-ins with leadership teams to insure project delivery is on track and to determine the status of the project, including whether its return to the consumer- or technical-discovery stage is appropriate. This focuses our resources on the highest-priority initiatives and forces critical evaluation of each project, minimizing the possibility that "weaker" projects stay in the queue for too long. Maintaining it requires vigilant process-adherence evaluation and training. And the process isn't static. A major process redesign was completed four years ago to add another gate in the sequence to help with early decision-making. That's innovation planning at work.

What are some of the biggest obstacles or cultural barriers inside a company that can inhibit the push for an innovation agenda?

Innovation has always been part of the culture here, but it was more event-driven. The pushback on innovation planning was somewhat predictable in that you have a lot of free spirits in a creative organization who want to find a new way for how they do the work rather than focusing on what they're trying to get to. Senior management really helped us in driving this "one right way" of thinking about innovation. So, the top-down approach was clearly the most effective way it was going to happen. As you build momentum with innovation planning, everybody tends to get on board.

Once consistent innovation is established in a company, does it sustain itself and spread on its own?

Yes, it sure does. It takes a little while to get it going, but if you continue to consistently deliver the message to the organization and also recognize what's going on as people follow the process -- that is, reward people for following the process as well as getting the results you want -- that's the big win. It's about "one right way." You're going to continuously improve the way you do it, but you want to foster that "one right way" across the organization. We've found that the innovation process itself really needs to be sacred.

John Barnaba is Vice President of Applied Technology for The Clorox Company. Sam Kogan is president and chief operating officer of GEN3 Partners, Inc., a product innovation consulting company. Based in Boston and St. Petersburg, Russia, GEN3 helps manufacturers identify the best opportunities for new products and new manufacturing processes and solve the technical barriers to achieving them.

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