Case study : Winning the Innovation Game – Lessons in Support

We were really frustrated by our inability to do things fast enough,” Craig Douglas, vice president sales and marketing for Fisher & Paykel Appliances says about the business couple of years back. “We had so many ideas but we couldn’t get to many of them because we were tied up on current projects. It was incredibly depressing to sometimes see competitors come up with product that we had thought about some years back and could have done ourselves.”
Now, two years down the track, there is zeal in the company about the solution they’ve found – adapting and applying the Toyota ‘Lean Product Development System’.
In essence it’s about using and capturing knowledge more efficiently. “We used to have project or product focus,” says Colin Gilchrist, F&P Appliance’s general manager quality. “We would take an idea, design and test, find something didn’t work so re-design and re-test until we got it right. New products could be in the pipeline for years and schedules weren’t always met.”
Now, he says, the product development team still starts with an idea and researches what is not known and what needs to be understood before the design phase begins. The focus now is not on the product to be developed, but on the problem to be addressed. There is constant discussion among the team to access the best knowledge, explore alternatives and ensure nothing is overlooked. The new mantra for product design is ‘test then design’ not the old way of ‘design then test’. Options are considered at the beginning of the process, rather than the end.
“We look much more broadly at the knowledge before jumping in and that gives far greater certainty. Now, by the time we start talking about delivering new product we know we can do it and we know how long it will take us,” says Gilchrist.
A pioneering spirit and culture of innovation have been central to the success of whiteware manufacturing company Fisher & Paykel Appliances which has grown into one of New Zealand’s most enduring and successful enterprises. The company has long tradition of challenging conventional appliance design and production systems and developing innovative technologies. Fisher & Paykel Appliances is major investor in research and development and cutting-edge scientific knowledge and an employer of many of New Zealand’s outstanding young scientists and technologists.
Innovation has long been byword for the whiteware company that boasts over 70 years in business and has collected numerous accolades. Established by the late Sir Woolf Fisher and Maurice Paykel in 1934, the company started out selling fridges and then, washing machines. When import restrictions threatened the fledgling business in 1938, it responded by manufacturing products under licence from major industry players. It was bold, preemptive move that set the tone for business that remains solutions-oriented and future-focused.
The F&P name is already well known in Australia and the company also has distribution outlets in America, Canada, Europe, the UK and Singapore. To keep up-to-date with design trends and product innovation, the company maintains strong research and development teams both in New Zealand and Australia.
The F&P focus on learning first and using world-class knowledge to give its products competitive edge makes the company natural employer of many young engineering and science graduates. Its commitment to cutting-edge knowledge and innovation underpins F&P’s support for the MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards, of which it is principal sponsor.
Neil Cheyne, head of the electronics and motors centre, says the new culture around innovation at F&P is making the company more attractive as career option.
“Moving from an academic learning institution to the business world shouldn’t be dramatic shift. It’s not just case of learn it at university and apply it in the workplace. F&P Appliances sees itself as kind of learning institution too.”
Toyota’s been doing Lean Product Development for 50 years, F&P is just beginning, says Cheyne, but results have come surprisingly quickly. He cites problem with magnetic seals on new refrigerator door. “We’ve been chasing solutions to the issue of ensuring tight shut on fridge doors for some time, often opting to put in stronger and stronger magnets but finding that was only short-term solution. Under our new approach some guys pulled together all the knowledge available about the problem and different ways of addressing it. Quite literally, in few days, it was obvious what we needed to do.”
Capturing what you learn in knowledge bank is fundamentally important says Cheyne. “The number of products and technologies being created is ballooning, generating huge amounts of knowledge. We have not had good systems for retaining that knowledge – engineers sometimes write in such detail that it’s hard to grasp later on, or they don’t document what they’ve done at all and the knowledge goes with them if they leave F&P.”
Now F&P staff distil the work that went into identifying and solving problem into information that can be clearly presented on an A3 sheet of paper. These are stored electronically and form an ever-expanding bank of knowledge for the company.
Cheyne says while the new systems put more structure around product development he’s confident they won’t stifle innovation. “There’s no reason why good understanding of the product development process should squash the spark of genius. You still get those eureka moments but, instead of just diving in and making product, we explore what is going to work first.”
The synergies between what Fisher & Paykel Appliances and New Zealand’s top young scientists and researchers are doing in the area of knowledge capture and communication was demonstrated at this year’s MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards (see box story “2008 MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Winners”). Some of F&P’s A3 product development knowledge capture posters were on display at the awards event, alongside the posters that award entrants prepared to explain their scientific research.
“We’re both doing the same thing – taking complex idea and research that has gone on for months or sometimes years and communicating it in way that people can understand,” says Cheyne.
While the changes at F&P have been turbulent for some, Gilchrist says they have also revitalised product development and given new momentum to the company.
“We’ve always been innovative and creative but our systems weren’t set up to maximise the value from that. Now they are.”
Introducing the Lean Product Development System started in F&P Appliances’ engineering team, but the principles underpinning it are being applied to other divisions and will also be rolled out at the company’s international sites.
“We’re not waving wand and saying it’s done,” says Gilchrist. “Soon we’ll be three, then four and then five years into this and the benefits will be exponential both in the knowledge we generate in the company and the buy-in from our staff and our suppliers.”

2008 MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Winners

An underwater run-in with slimy hagfish and curiosity about the food source for these scavenging fish that live up to 400 metres below sea level in the New Zealand fiords, have unravelled secrets of the underworld and won researcher Rebecca McLeod (pictured) the title of 2008 MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year.
McLeod encountered the ancient and primitive hagfish, which is jawless, toothless and blind and excretes stinky slime when stressed, during her first dive in Fiordland. Her subsequent research into its diet has revealed novel food web in which coastal deep water creatures rely on recycled energy from Fiordland’s coastal forests.
The 30-year-old marine ecologist from the University of Otago developed cutting-edge chemistry tools that reveal energy transfer between the forest and the sea and deliver findings that have implications for coastal manageme

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