Ralf Drews doesn’t fit the profile of your typical company president or CEO. He doesn’t have a background in marketing or finance or sales or operations. He is an engineer and has spent many years working hands on developing new products. A day on the job for Drews doesn’t involve looking over spreadsheets or contemplating sales figures; it involves being out in the field at an oil pipeline or under the street in a sewage canal because that is where his customers work.
While Drews may not be concerned with sales figures and operating numbers, he does know product development and innovation, which is what drives his company forward. Drews is president and CEO of Draeger Safety Inc., a $1 billion manufacturer of gas detection equipment, air quality monitors, masks, and other safety and emergency products, and employs 400 people here in the U.S. and 3,800 worldwide.
Since joining Draeger more than 20 years ago, Drews’ product development leadership and innovative outlook has been responsible for 90 percent of the company’s product portfolio today.
“What innovation needs is people who can challenge each other,” Drews says. “Conflict must be wanted. New things must be wanted. Change must be seen as something positive, and if you generally have a good change DNA or change culture within your company, innovation is not an enemy but will support that.”
Drews’ drive and attention to innovation has helped create an environment that makes Draeger Safety’s products category leaders.
“The question always is when you come up with innovations, will there be customers who appreciate what you invented and come up with?” Drews says.
Here’s how Drews utilizes best practices for high-level innovation to ensure customers want and need Draeger’s products.
Understand your arena
In the 20 years that Drews has been developing products at Draeger, the one thing he has come to find is that innovation doesn’t just happen. You have to understand who you want to innovate for.
“What I have learned in my time as R&D manager is … many people thought that ideas are just coming out of the blue,” Drews says. “You just need to watch and observe and all of a sudden you get a sign from the universe and a new idea or new invention is born. This may happen in smaller businesses … but I believe in more mature organizations you need more structure around innovation and how to create innovation, because I think innovation does not happen by accident. Process, people and culture are the three elements that have to be designed in a way that they come together and then innovation can happen.”
If innovation is a key component of your business and you want to build your company around it, you need to have a focus for it.
“What you need to understand first of all is your market,” he says. “The blue ocean approach is one approach (that) clearly supports the logic to understand which arena you want to play. What’s your customer and what’s not your customer? You really need to draw the line. The first and most important step, and for most companies the most difficult step, is clearly focus where you want to go.
“That’s probably one of the most difficult things to do for people, because if you do that you also automatically exclude other applications. But what that gives you is a very clear focus and by having that focus you have a very good chance and a high likelihood that you can come up with something great. Whenever you want to do everything with one product the likelihood is very, very high that you come up with an average product or even with a loser product because that’s simply impossible.”
As soon as you determine who you want to serve, you can start to truly understand the customer’s needs — even the ones they don’t know about.
“A truly powerful innovation approach is to find out what are the articulated, but even more importantly, the unarticulated needs from a customer standpoint,” he says. “There are articulated needs — every customer knows this is a problem, it has been a problem that’s not been solved. There are also unarticulated needs. That’s where the problems would potentially lead to the biggest wow factor or to the biggest innovation.”
The key question is how much more value does a solved problem provide for your customer if it were solved.
“Does it enhance productivity?” Drews says. “Does it reduce costs and how much cost would there be? How does it impact the cost of ownership? What is the concrete value? We always try to attach a dollar tag to it. The second aspect is how expensive would it be for you to solve this problem? What we look at is actually the value from the customer perspective and how much R&D money we have to apply to solve the problem. Those are the two key questions.”
In Draeger’s case, the product is the spearhead, so it’s important for the company to understand how to innovate products.
“The market has to be very structured, very clear, and then basically, we send out people who observe and interview customers to really find out what are the needs and what are the demands,” he says. “Hopefully, they are able to find some unarticulated demands and needs, which could potentially lead to innovation.”
Create a voice of the customer
To find those unarticulated needs of the customer you have to get out in the field and see firsthand how customers work and how they use your products. That is exactly how Drews developed his latest innovation, the X-zone 5000 gas detector.
“I went out into the field and watched some practices in oil and gas and also in sewage,” Drews says. “Instead of talking to people, drinking a cup of coffee and eating some cookies, you really get into the dirt. You really want to understand how the people are dealing with your equipment. I went into the pipelines and into parts of the Hamburg sewage canals and I talked to the workers; the people who spend 80 percent, 90 percent of their work life underneath the street. They don’t really know what they don’t know, but by observing them and by looking at them and asking very specific questions you will find out whether there is something to improve with your product.”
Drews interviewed the person responsible for monitoring a manhole while people were working in the sewage canal pipes. This guy had to constantly draw samples of air from the canal because it can be toxic or have combustible gases.
“This guy used a small gas detector, and I was asking him what could be improved with this product,” Drews says. “He said, ‘Oh, this product is perfectly fine; there’s nothing that you could improve.’ I asked, ‘Why do you have this cable drum?’ He said, ‘The reason is very simple. It has happened in the past that the gas detector gets kicked into the canal because people walking by didn’t see it. What we do now is we connect the gas detector to this small cable drum so people can see it.’ I also asked him what he does when it’s raining because he is just standing there next to the manhole. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s a problem. Whenever it’s raining, I cannot get into my truck because the visual alarm is not bright enough and the audible alarm is not loud enough.’”
By asking a few key questions and watching what this guy had to do, Drews realized there were several ways to greatly improve the gas detector by making alarms brighter and louder and the unit more visible.
“Some of those questions we asked did lead to the X-zone, so we were basically discovering a problem, which he could not really articulate, but he was aware of,” he says.
In addition to research in the field, it is beneficial to create a voice-of-the-customer group to look at customer touch points, needs, and ways you can innovate and create more value.
“I recommend that companies create and build their own dedicated voice-of-the-customer groups within their companies because this is something completely different to a regular product management job,” Drews says. “If you want to be a good voice-of-the-customer marketing person, you really need to have some psychological skills, you need the ability to look behind the scenes, you really need to have the passion for interviewing people, and you have to have a passion for going into the real life environment.”
A critical part of the VOC process is assessing your competitors.
“What’s a target competitor in that specific region, vertical and application?” he says. “What’s the strongest competitor? Where does the competitor’s product really excel? And how do you want to compete against that? You have to make a conscious decision to focus on the strongest competitor in your target arena.”
Once you have found the needs of your customer and areas that your competitors overlooked, you have to find out if customers like the product concept.
“What you do at the end of this voice-of-the-customer study is you pre-sell your product,” he says. “At this point in time you have not even created a product development team, you don’t even know whether you want to develop that product. What you can do with all the things you found out in the voice-of-the-customer process is prepare a sales pitch like you have that product already. You present the features and the benefits your product has in a very nice way. Then you look into the eyes of the customer and if you don’t see the sparkles in their eyes and if they don’t ask, ‘When can I have it?’ You might not have a winner.”
Have an innovative environment
When Drews presented his concept for the X-zone, customers lit up and saw the value in owning the product. The success of this whole process is due in large part to Draeger Safety’s innovative environment.
“I don’t believe you just put people in a room and make sure they have a lot of fun and then finally they come up with an idea,” he says. “They might come up with an idea, but not necessarily addressing the problem you want to solve.”
To produce innovation in a very structured way people have to be focused and work together as a team.
“They have to be smart,” he says. “They have to know their stuff and they should be coming from different cross-functional areas. They should be very open-minded in their discussions. You have to have quick thinkers and problem solvers.”
These sessions should not be one day or two days long. They should be short one- to three-hour sessions.
“Don’t give them too much time,” he says. “They have to be efficient because ideas come up fast or they don’t come up. You’d rather repeat that. After you have pulled the people together and you have not come to a solution, do it again the next day or later that same day, but don’t give people too much time to come up with high-level innovation.”
High-level innovation starts with the culture. An innovative culture needs a lot of contradiction and people who can challenge each other but who can also admit when others have a better idea.
“What it needs is a culture of conflict, which means I must try to disagree with someone as long as it is for the right reason, which is to fault this product or problem,” Drews says. “One of the sayings I’ve heard a long time ago is, ‘Conflict is a lever for innovation.’ I really truly believe in that because if you have a challenge coming from the production side and that contradicts with purchasing and that contradicts with what marketing wants or that contradicts with what R&D is able to do and there’s people in the room who can discuss that and can accept each other and are open for dialogue and they really truly respect the other people’s opinions, perspectives and needs, then as soon as you put all of that together with people who are problem solvers, who are open-minded, who are quick thinkers and are smart and really know their stuff … you really get things going within an hour or a few hours.”
To keep an innovative environment and process flowing smoothly and successfully, it has to be supported by the entire organization.
“Whenever you have the people in one room I just described, that is really, really powerful. That’s something I would describe as culture and of course that goes all the way up, not just on an engineering level, marketing or product management level, but this has to be supported by the top management because culture is really driven from the top down.”
Once you have all these innovation processes working together all that is left is getting customers to see the value in your product.
“All the things which we have come up with from the VOC approach before we started the product development are basically reflected in what the customer feedback is and that’s pretty cool,” Drews says. “That tells you that you have a very robust innovation process and no longer is the result of your R&D process the result of hope and no longer do you rely on very talented or genius product managers, but you can make it a very structured approach to innovation and this process is sustainable and reproducible. It really works if you do it well.”
HOW TO REACH: Draeger Safety Inc., (800) 858-1737 or www.draeger.com/US/en_US/
– Understand who and where you want to focus your innovation strategy towards
– Get into the field and observe and ask questions of your target customer
– Create a structured, creative and contradictive environment
The Drews File
President and CEO
Draeger Safety Inc.
Born: Hamburg, Germany
Education: Engineering degree from the University of Luebeck
What was your first job and what did you learn from that experience?
My very first job was when I joined Draeger in 1991. I became a mechanical engineer, and what that job taught me was that I gravitated pretty fast to a leadership role. I was promoted just eight months after I joined Draeger. I also learned that my passion was not to design all the details but actually create ideas.
Who is somebody that you admire in business?
One guy I think very highly of is Steve Jobs. What he brings to the table is an outstanding empathy for customers. His understanding of customers is very good and that together with a very good understanding of complexity management and an ability to bring great talent to his company makes him strong.
What is your favorite business book?
‘Good to Great,’ that’s the only management book that has been a role model for me or has given me great guidance.
What Draeger Safety innovation are you most proud of?
The X-zone, definitely. A lot of that product goes back to my personal ideas and one of the most important patents is owned by me. Also, it’s a product that was relatively strictly developed in accordance with our VOC approach. This is not something that was an accident. It is something which was thought through very thoroughly and validated at each stage.