Innovation can be elusive. And there’s a reason for that. It’s not easy. Innovation is something that many companies seek. When innovation is accomplished, success typically follows. But what truly makes a company innovative? Is it the number of patents held, the ability to make a revolutionary change to a service or product, or is it creating something that is the first of its kind?
An even harder question than what makes a company innovative is, how is innovation itself created? To help answer this question Smart Business took a look inside Rockwell Automation, a more than $6 billion company solely focused on automation.
Rockwell is divided into two main segments — the Control Products and Solutions Group, and Architecture and Software Group. Scot Tutkovics works in the Architecture and Software Group as the vice president of engineering for Control and Visualization, which is the largest business unit in the company. He his responsible for roughly 1,000 engineers spread out in Milwaukee; Cleveland; Phoenix; Mission Viejo, Calif.; Montreal; Singapore; Dalian, China; and Katowice, Poland.
“We are responsible for the heart of our integrated architecture,” Tutkovics says. “We go to market with products, but also through services. We sell configurable, programmable systems to solve any number of business problems that people have, largely in the manufacturing space, but also in entertainment such as amusement parks, and some automation on ships for pumps. Manufacturing is our bread and butter, though.”
Rockwell has received acclaim for its ability to innovate year after year. Both Forbes and Thompson Rueters named the company a top innovator, and within the past two years the company has led Northeast Ohio in patents produced, and was second in the state behind only Procter & Gamble.
Here’s how Tutkovics and Rockwell Automation keep the innovative juices flowing.
Create a culture of innovation
While Rockwell was named the regions top patent producer a year or two ago, the company has not slowed down today. It continues to drive innovation through patents, but that’s just one of the measures of innovation, not the only measure.
“The culture of innovation goes all the way to the top,” Tutkovics says. “Our CEO is somebody that believes in this greatly and talks to all of our engineers regularly about it.”
The company has a yearly celebration of innovation where it recognizes engineers that not only were awarded patents throughout the year, but also the ones who submitted ideas even if their idea came up short of a patent.
“One of the reasons innovation has been so successful is we recognize the engineers for doing this kind of work and coming up with the great ideas and following through by putting them into products,” he says. “Recognition is a big part of it and we make sure that’s a priority of our company.”
Innovation is the lifeblood of Rockwell. The fact that the company continues to drive innovation into its products and stays state-of-the-art allows it to make the world’s most successful customers, and that customer success results in customer loyalty.
“If they keep coming back to us it grows our business and allows us to pump more and more development dollars back into innovative design,” he says.
R&D spending within Rockwell is north of $200 million a year and a lot of that goes into developing innovative products.
“Within our product development process we have stage gates that we go through to make sure that we’re not violating some other company’s patent, but also to capture ideas that are unique that we should be protecting,” Tutkovics says.
“Secondly, an engineer may have an idea that may be applicable to something else in the company. We have the ability for them to submit those ideas.
“Then we have a regular review committee that’s made up of the most senior engineers in the company and they make sure the idea is vectored into the right area of the company.”
The third area of focus Rockwell uses to generate new ideas is innovation workshops. These workshops are for hot topic areas, and there are usually several based on requests from the company’s customers.
“These workshops bring together the best minds in the company and they talk through new ideas and things that can add value for our customers,” he says. “Many times they output ideas that may get patented.”
Creating a culture of innovation isn’t easy, but if you put the right ingredients together and continuously work to improve products or services, you can achieve it.
“The first thing you need to create is a culture in which those types of innovative ideas from the population have an avenue to be voiced,” he says. “Secondly, the real game changers are the innovations where people come up with a new idea and way of doing something. You have to create a culture where that is valued and people understand that’s something the company wants them to do.
“Creating the recognition, creating an understanding of the value, and then providing the avenue for people to communicate those ideas are the keys.”
Company vs. customer
Innovations can come from numerous areas that generate ideas, but two of the biggest are in-house innovations and those that come from customers. There has to be a balance between the two.
“A lot of the features that we put in products are a lot of what our customers are asking for,” Tutkovics says. “But at the same time, customers only know their specific area, and one of the great values a company like Rockwell provides is we not only serve automotive, we serve many industry segments.
“Since we have the ability to look across so many different industry segments, we start to see them in ways that maybe someone in a single segment wouldn’t see, and that allows us to suggest ways of solving problems differently.”
Rockwell serves markets that by their very nature are much more conservative and risk-averse than a consumer market would be. Not everybody wants the latest and greatest innovations.
“We have to make sure that we’re turning that innovation not just for innovation purposes,” he says. “In a consumer market, people will buy something just because it’s new and it’s cool. In our markets, new and cool might get you in the door and start the conversation, but new and cool better turn into something tangible for the customer.”
Recognize your innovators
What helps drive innovation at Rockwell and motivate the engineers is the amount of recognition the company gives to those employees. Rockwell has an annual dinner that it does in multiple locations around the world to recognize engineers for various levels of innovations.
“Without the company really stepping up and showing that level of commitment to innovation, it really becomes lip service,” Tutkovics says. “It’s great to say the words, but people are smart enough to understand you have to put your money where your mouth is. You have to live what you’re saying, and I’m proud to say that’s something Rockwell does.”
Having state-of-the-art products and being known for having the highest quality products in the industry not only makes it a great place to work, but people are proud of the fact that they have something to contribute to at Rockwell.
“All of that results in increased employee engagement, and as engagement goes up productivity goes up,” he says. “That’s a real driving force for people to know that the work they are doing means something and is recognized. Without that recognition it just becomes a place to go to work every day and that’s not a place you want to stay long-term.”
How to reach: Rockwell Automation, (440) 646-7900 or www.rockwellautomation.com