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Ben Bensaou


Innovation Is Everyone’s Business

Steps to integrate innovative practices and thinking across your organization

Published: Thursday, January 20, 2022 - 12:02

A manufacturer of the fabric used to reinforce car tires might not seem an obvious source of innovation inspiration. But in just a few years, Kordsa, a part of the Turkish industrial conglomerate Sabancı Group, transformed itself from a price-driven maker of commodity products into a provider of innovative solutions to clients across multiple industries.

Although there are many reasons for Kordsa’s remarkable success, the process began with senior executives giving permission to everyone in the organization to innovate.  

Of course, most organizations recognize the importance of encouraging innovation. Good ideas can streamline production processes, help save money and open up potential new markets. Yet despite the compelling evidence, it’s not always obvious what steps are needed to integrate innovative practices and thinking across an organization.

A blueprint for innovation

Based on more than 20 years of researching, teaching, and consulting for some of the world’s leading companies, I’ve attempted to address that shortfall. In my book, Built to Innovate (McGraw Hill 2021), I aim to map out a proven system for building constant innovation into your company’s DNA. I explain that there are three key processes necessary to build what I term an “innovation engine” into any organization: creation, integration, and reframing.

Integration and reframing are about changing mindsets and implementing innovations across an organization. (These will be dealt with more fully in subsequent articles.) Creation is focused on the act of generating the ideas needed for innovation to take place. But it’s also about making sure those ideas are being created throughout an organization, particularly by frontline workers.

As we see in the Kordsa example, for this to work, people need to be able, capable, and motivated to create ideas. Put another way, they need the permission to innovate; the time, training and resources to innovate; and the motivation to do so without fear of failure.

Democratization of idea creation

Cenk Alper was the executive charged with bringing a culture of innovation to Kordsa. One of the first actions he took was a companywide survey to identify good innovations already taking place within the firm. He then made sure that these were recognized and rewarded.

Alper also invested in a new internal technology center in a bid to upgrade the organization’s R&D operation. At the same time, he made sure all departments of the business were working on at least one innovation project, helping ensure the concept of creativity was embedded across the organization.

However, perhaps the biggest step to “democratize innovation” as Alper described it, was the launch of total productive maintenance (TPM). This was an innovation training program rolled out for all employees, from frontline workers through to senior executives, across all 12 facilities globally.

To underline the commitment of senior leaders to TPM, Alper went through the training himself and made sure all middle managers also received the training. As well as giving employees the tools and techniques needed to innovate, TPM showed them that they not only had permission to innovate but they were expected to do so.

The results were impressive and wide-ranging, going far beyond the development of more innovative products, though that also occurred. Innovations included a drastic reduction in the time needed to replace an oil filter on the assembly line. TPM also led to the creation of a buddy system for new starters that eased pressure on the HR department and forged closer ties between employees.

Closing the gap to clients

To further help with the idea-creation process, Kordsa also looked to reduce the distance between potential innovators and customers. This is something I’ve identified as key to developing an innovation engine in any organization.

A state-of-the-art experimental laboratory opened its doors so customers could visit and bring their ideas and challenges to Kordsa’s scientists. Meanwhile, cross-functional teams spent time camped in the customers’ plants to better understand their unmet needs and challenges.

One new product that came out of this process was the development of a new type of tire cord fabric. Branded Capmax, it removed the need for several time-consuming and costly stages in the tire manufacturing process, a common customer complaint.

These new products didn’t just help the organization become recognized as an innovator within the tire manufacturing industry. They also opened up completely new markets such as aerospace and electronics, where they could license their innovative composite materials.

Motivating creativity

A final piece of the jigsaw puzzle was motivating employees to create the ideas. One way this was achieved was through the thoughtful design of a stage-gate process for innovation ideas. For an idea to pass through to the next stage of development, it had to meet a series of criteria after review by a leadership committee.

However, to protect innovators from the stigma of failure, and to avoid prematurely killing ideas with potential, the process incorporated “positive discrimination.” This meant ideas weren’t bound to the normal commercial pressures and profit requirements for the first five years. This tweak to the system gave the Kordsa teams more time to eliminate any teething troubles or flaws.

Kordsa is a great example of what can be done when a whole organization commits to the idea of creation. Their numerous innovations have reframed the organization as a technology innovator that has won numerous awards. It’s also now ranked third for R&D capabilities among all Turkish corporations.

The ever-expanding range of innovative materials have allowed the company to grow its business into a raft of previously unconsidered areas, while Alper went on to become CEO of Sabancı Holdings. His belief in the value of empowering all employees remains undimmed, and he continues to personally conduct innovation training for employees today.

Surely, that’s the clearest sign to all his employees that they have his full approval to embrace innovation.

First published Nov. 9, 2021 on INSEAD’s Knowledge blog.


About The Author

Ben Bensaou’s picture

Ben Bensaou

Ben M. Bensaou is a professor of technology management and professor of Asian business and comparative management at INSEAD.