When A. Malachi “Mal” Mixon III started with Invacare Corp. in 1980, the company had about $19 million in sales the previous year. He used to ask his 300 employees what kind of company they were, and they used to say a wheel-chair company. Slowly, though, Invacare redefined itself into a home medical equipment company, which allowed it to get into even more products. This led Invacare from being simply a U.S. company to expanding internationally. Last year, the company, now with 6,000 associates, hit $1.6 billion in net sales throughout 80 countries. Mixon accredits it all to one thing: innovation.
“These are conscious decisions that we’ve made that have made us totally different and innovative relative to our competitors,” the chairman and CEO says.
Innovation has also helped the company take its product development time from two years down to about 13 months. It also used to deliver custom products in four weeks, and now it takes five days.
“Some people think innovation is only something you apply to a product,” Mixon says. “Without exception, no matter what the functional area is, there are innovative possibilities, so you really need everyone in your company to think about how to do things better.”
One of the keys to getting your people thinking of innovation is to get rid of the sacred cows and allow people to challenge the way things are done. He says that how you handle yourself in meetings and the body language you give off are critical in this endeavor.
“It’s a matter of your culture and whether, if you challenge the boss, if you get your head cut off or are encouraged to speak up,” Mixon says. “There’s a difference in insulting someone or being rude or saying, ‘You’re stupid,’ versus a legitimate challenge to the way of doing it.”
Another key to driving innovation in your business is to focus on your customer.
“If you really focus around the customer and what they want and what they want to achieve rather than the product you want to sell them, you’ll find that you’ll be more innovative because you’re trying to help that customer be more successful, and if they’re more successful because of you, then they’ll reward you with a purchase,” he says.
For example, Invacare has been a leader in lobbying in Washington for change to reimbursement for home medical products. Recently, it was successful in getting legislation passed by Congress to change the way reimbursements occur, and Invacare’s customers have poured in the e-mails and letters thanking the company because many of them are small customers that don’t have the size, power or money to carry out a lobbying program.
Lastly, you have to look for ideas and changes that are really going to move the needle. At Invacare, Mixon and his team look at ideas and classify them in three categories — maintenance, innovative or disruptive. Maintenance ideas are just that — smaller things that need to be done to make basic improvements. Then there are innovative ideas that make things better, but the biggest ideas are the disruptive ones.
“Beyond innovative is disruptive,” Mixon says. “It changes the whole way something is done in an industry.”
He notes that examples of disruptive ideas are cell phones, jet aircraft, color TV and computers because they have completely changed the way people live, work, travel and do business. At Invacare, the team came up with a way to make oxygen in your home instead of having it delivered in tanks, which was a disruptive idea for the industry. So instead of trying to just push innovation, look for those disruptive ideas that can propel your company into new territory as a leader.
“If I change something and make it a lot better, that’s innovative, but that’s not a breakthrough, and it’s not a change agent that really causes you to change the way you’re doing things,” Mixon says. “You have limited engineering dollars, so who gets the money? You look at what impact it will have on your business, your sales, your margins, and there’s always a risk.”
While innovation also leads to change in an organization, it’s important to not get caught up in the fear associated with change.
“The inevitability is organizations either go forward or backward,” Mixon says. “There’s no treading water, so you have to look at yourself over a period of time and say, ‘Am I growing and succeeding and making good returns for my investors?’ Sometimes, a lot of little innovations add up to big success.”
HOW TO REACH: Invacare Corp., (440) 329-6000 or www.invacare.com