Disrupting the norm

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