How to create an environment where innovation thrives Featured

8:00pm EDT June 6, 2010

It’s why Matt Hlavin turned his office into a giant dry erase board, and how Mike Waite keeps the cardboard box relevant.


It’s all in the name of innovation.


The topic of Open Innovation also brought a hundred of Northeast Ohio’s leaders together recently at the Baldwin-Wallace Center for Innovation and Growth. The panelists – Hlavin, president of Thogus Products Co.; Waite, president of Menasha Packaging Co. LLC; and Jackie Hutter, founder and principal of The Hutter Group LLC – shared how critical innovation is to keeping companies on top.


“Even a brown box can be innovative when you think about supply chain, how you bring it to market,” Waite says.


But that can only happen if you provide an atmosphere where your employees’ innovation can thrive.


“I have to make sure I give them freedom and latitude, and make sure I don’t shut them down,” says Waite, who personally answers his own phone calls. “I can shut that down by a wrong word, a wrong tone in a meeting. I tell my managers, ‘Try to have an open mind every day you come to work – how can you do it better and make it better?’”

While he’s open to ideas, Waite also points back to the process it takes for one to become reality.


“I always first say to them, ‘Have you talked to the people at your local level first?’” he says. “No. 1, that respects the people at the local level. It also points in a direction for a process, that I’m not going to be the one that has all the answers, even though I’m president of the company.”


When ideas bubble through that process, Waite runs them through some filters. Ideas must meet some criteria in terms of functionality, market, “runnability,” cost and sustainability. To make sure he sees issues from all sides, he runs suggestions through various departments to understand how each step of the process looks.


[Watch a video of Waite discussing how he creates an environment for open innovation.]


At Thogus, innovation is all about visibility. New employees are trained on identifying areas for improvement by watching a video of how the shop floor is set up or how a certain job is processed. Then they’re asked to identify: Why is this inefficient? What’s good? What’s bad?


“As they see what the problem is, the ah-ha light comes on,” says Hlavin, who revamped his shop floor with employee input.


To maintain that open environment after orientation, employees will be able to use an iPad at each machine to access YouTube videos of Thogus’s processes and leave comments.


They can also jot ideas on the office walls, most of which Hlavin has coated in dry erase paint. That way, even if an idea isn’t acted on, it’s visible.


“If you want to keep an open innovative culture, you have to see the ideas,” Hlavin says. “They may not have a great idea today, but that idea – two, three years from now – becomes pertinent.”


[Watch a video of Hlavin discussing how technology enables him to get ideas from employees.]



Hutter, who refers to herself as a “recovering patent attorney,” recommends looking even further outside of your organization for ideas – to patents.


“When you file a patent, you have to open your kimono and tell people what you’re interested in,” Hutter says. “You have to reveal to the outside world your business interests, research investments, corporate investments, core competencies and missing competencies.”


Though patents today are usually perceived as legal rights to your intellectual property, they were originally developed to spur innovation by disclosing information about other people’s inventions.


“It’s better for innovation if you know what other innovators have done,” Hutter says. “Innovation begets innovation.”

Patents reveal the innovator’s core competencies as well as weaknesses, she explains. You can look through those documented skill sets for opportunities where you could complement their weak spots. Patents can also illustrate how others have tried solving certain problems, keeping you from reinventing the wheel.


“Patents broadly disclose technology but narrowly claim the product,” Hutter says. “So you can start R&D on the 30-yard line instead of the end zone.”


But you have to remind yourself that it’s not just for innovation’s sake. Hutter encourages her clients to understand the difference between something that’s merely patentable and something that the consumer actually cares about.

“In a business sense, the reason you have an invention is because the consumer had a problem,” Hutter says.


[Watch a video of Hutter explaining how patents can fuel innovation.]


Interested in more innovation? Smart Business spoke with a couple of other leaders who attended the forum. See how they're innovating their companies.


Charles Rotuno, president and CEO, OEConnection


Tom Donelan, president and CEO, Heartland Consumer Products