Little Tikes innovates with an open environment for ideas Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

Tom Richmond, The Little Tikes Co.On any given morning, Tom Richmond might see one of his products featured on the “Today Show.”

At the July 20 Smart Business Live luncheon, Richmond discussed The Little Tikes Co.’s continued innovation — even though it doesn’t come naturally to him.

“I always thought people must go up on a mountain and smoke something and come back with some great idea,” says Richmond, company general manager, who also serves as executive vice president for MGA Entertainment Inc., Little Tikes’ parent company. “How can there be a process associated with that? But actually there is, and it’s amazing.”

That process begins in the marketing department with consumer research, which becomes a script of marketplace hotspots for designers to follow. A panel of senior executives and end-users review designs, which are then refined through prototypes.

The key through that is maintaining an open environment where innovation is shared across the organization.

“My job is really to provide an equal playing field, to provide an environment where everyone can express their opinions, can give their ideas,” Richmond says. “So part of it is creating the vision. The second part of it is really communicating that vision so everyone understands what are we trying to do — so giving everyone the script that we’re playing to and then encouraging an open dialogue where the whole organization can bring in ideas.”

You establish that environment from the top with your response to ideas. Richmond doesn’t dwell on negatives and lets employees champion their own ideas.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is not to derail someone’s project for what’s wrong with it but to have them express explicitly what they think is right about it,” he says. “Many times during the process of having to explain yourself, it enlightens you, and you figure out, ‘Maybe I can see this from the other person’s perspective. Maybe it doesn’t do everything I thought it was supposed to do.’ That’s a growing experience and that creates further development.”

When you look at consensus the way Richmond does, in terms of “convincing the naysayers that maybe this thing has some validity to it,” having employees sell their ideas not only reveals weaknesses but also strengthens positives as they bring colleagues on board.

Focus on high points as you polish ideas into products.

“What are the key features in this?” Richmond asks. “How are we going to refine it? What’s really resonating with the consumer? What are the key issues that we need to go back to either our supply community or manufacturing or our plant to figure out ways to do things differently, marrying our capital structure with what we’re creating?”

When a better resulting product is the goal, conversations become more constructive.

“It’s having an open environment where people feel comfortable and able to express their opinion in a noncombative way,” Richmond says. “‘OK, you think my product is terrible? Fine. What would you do?’ Part of my job is trying to create that environment where that open dialogue exists.”

When you respond openly to ideas, it opens the doors to innovation. Then, ideas could come from an employee in sourcing who invites designers on a field trip to see how aerospace technology could translate into your industry.

“When we talk about … ingenuity and being innovative, to me it’s really the whole organization,” Richmond says. “It’s not a small group of creative people that just go away and think of stuff. It’s really a whole organization working together, bringing all of their life experiences and business experiences together to put the maximum thinking into that product."

Look out

Many Little Tikes products don’t come solely from internal innovation. A lot of ideas — if only tweaks to finished products — are contributions from people whom Tom Richmond doesn’t even employ.

“Ideas can come from anywhere,” says Richmond, the general manager. “Many times … it’s just people coming up with ideas who are actually using the product.”

By the time consumers test an idea, it probably has your organization’s nod already. Now, it rides on external feedback.

“The main filters are the experience of bringing (ideas) out to the environment and the folks that are going to be using or playing with our products and looking at how that reception is,” Richmond says. “There are many times when our whole organization’s behind a product … and it goes nowhere. There are other products that are kind of ho-hum … and they sell out.”

The challenge is embracing external input without discouraging internal ideas.

“You have to have some injection of external thinking, but then how do you break the internal barriers?” Richmond asks, referencing partnerships, internships and consultancies. “Really promote the fact that when you’re bringing in external resources and external thinking, this isn’t to your detriment. It’s for your benefit. These people are here to help, not to criticize. … If they see something you didn’t see, it’s only going to make you a better person.”

How to reach: The Little Tikes Co., (800) 748-2204 or www.littletikes.com