How Jim Keane leads Steelcase Inc. to innovate product in a changing market

Jim Keane, President, Steelcase Group brand of Steelcase Inc.

Jim Keane says the nature of work is changing.

As president of the Steelcase Group brand of Steelcase Inc., a global leader in the office furniture industry based in Grand Rapids, Mich., he is at the forefront of adapting its product line to accommodate this change.

“There’s a major shift from individual work to collaborative work,” he says. “And to the extent you do individual work, because you have new technologies that allow for mobility — things like wireless laptops, smart phones — people can do their individual work from anywhere.”

Smart Business sat down with Keane at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how the 10,000-employee company generates, tests and implements new ideas for its product line to meet the changing needs of today’s workforce.

Where do you get inspiration for products?

We believe in user-centered innovation. … What happens when someone actually sits in our product, uses our product or goes to the conference room and tries to make a video conference call? How can we make life easier for them? How can we get at the root of what they’re really trying to get done? And we find that surveys aren’t very useful for that because people just don’t think about these things. So the most powerful tool we have seen is observation, literally just standing there and watching.

Every time we work with a client, we go back and we observe what things that worked the way we expected and we look at things that were different than we expected. Sometimes those differences give us ideas. We also are very careful about studying people at work. We have people inside Steelcase that are sociologists, anthropologists, people who are trained in design thinking. … They kind of tease out behaviors that they’re seeing (in the workplace).

Studying things that have nothing to do with furniture is actually very helpful. So I attend conferences that have nothing to do with business and nothing to do with furniture, and I learn about biology and new things that are happening with that field. I learn about architecture and design, which have a tangential relationship to us. … Almost always within six months or a year after the conference, I find myself thinking back on one of those presentations and remembering something somebody said and beginning to think about how it could actually be relevant to what we’re going to face in the future.

How do you turn an idea into a tangible product?

We very quickly in our innovation process move from ideas to prototypes. … We experiment on ourselves, and our employees love being part of experiments we run inside the company. We’ll also do this sometimes with clients. We’ll have clients who will ask to be part of pilot product testing.

We’ll study something, we’ll come up with our own range of ideas and we’ll very quickly build rough prototypes. These might be built out of foam board, they might be built out of cardboard, so we’re not intending to sit in it or work at it. But we just want to feel what that’s like, and then we tear it up. We learn from it, we tear it up and we start over with something that might be built out of wood. And then we’ll tear that up and we’ll keep iterating — maybe five, 10, 15 iterations on an idea — before we finally decide that it might be something we want to launch as a product. So we fail over and over throughout that process. Fail early, fail often, but keep iterating.

How do you take lessons from that process and apply it to future ideas?

We try to capture the lessons that we’ve learned. We may capture it through video; we may capture it through still images. We love, for example, giving users disposable digital cameras where they can take pictures of whatever they want to take a picture of to relay to us their experience in using the product they’re testing. So we end up with rooms that are wallpapered with these photographs. We might capture thousands of photographs from stage to stage, and then on that wall there might be little Post-it® notes or things that are the synthesis of the lessons that we’ve learned. So as our team continues to work, they never leave that space. They continue to work in that space and they see the progression of their idea from the early stage ideas all the way through to the end.

How do you get your clients’ constituents on board with changes to their work environment?

We have consultant services we offer, and our dealers also offer services, to help manage that change process. Some of it is actually engaging the employees of the company in the design. … A lot of times the employees have strong views about the way their workplace should be. And by working with them, we’re able to help them play a role in the design process, and that creates true buy in.

We also work during the move-in process to help people make the adjustment from the kinds of spaces they had before to new kinds of spaces — help them get their chairs adjusted, help them figure out how they’re going to use the new kinds of storage. And if you do all those things right, if you pick the solution that’s right for your company, if you engage your employees in the design and if you play close attention to individuals as they make their way through the process, it can be very successful.

HOW TO REACH: Steelcase Inc., 616-247-2710 or