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Dawn Bailey

Quality Insider

‘We Do It to Improve Processes’

How intelligent risk was used to innovate a 70-year-old product

Published: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - 16:46

In Baldrige’s 2013–2014 Criteria for Performance Excellence, innovation is defined as making meaningful, discontinuous change to products, processes, or organizational effectiveness in order to create new value for stakeholders. So you might not expect to find an example of such innovation in a traditional industry such as nameplates, where two-time Baldrige Award winner Texas Nameplate has been making nameplates that have basically looked the same for almost 70 years.

But Dale Crownover, the president and CEO of the family-owned business started by his father, is a self-described “Baldrige practitioner”; innovation and visionary leadership were concepts he knew well.

Texas Nameplate has just been awarded a U.S. government patent (No. 8540285) for a chemically etched QR code for nameplates. The QR code can be scanned by any smart phone and links the customer to the Internet, where he can find detailed information about the product. The code enables repair crews to instantly access repair manuals while in the field, and allows companies to more efficiently track inventory, users to instantly access safety information, and customers to understand their product with more clarity (no more user errors trying to understand the limited information that can be printed on nameplates).

Nameplates can be found on just about every appliance, from refrigerators, hot water heaters, air conditioners, and lawn mowers, to big pressure vessels used in the oil and gas industry, and valves and machinery used by the military.

“If it wasn’t for Baldrige, I would have never thought about [developing the process recognized in the patent],” says Crownover. “Everything that we’ve ever done, we’ve always tried to think of more innovative ways and how to bring more value for our customers’ customers. Baldrige taught me that no matter what you do, you can do it better. I have a lot of respect for the Criteria and more important, how it provides visionary considerations for all stakeholders in finding bigger, better ways to do things.”

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Defense requested that the unique identification codes on its products be laser etched into nameplates so the product information could be read by scanners. The problem was that the typical etching process is chemically based so that it can be done in batches; laser etching can only be done one at a time, not a very cost-effective method, especially for a small business like Texas Nameplate.

Crownover says he had always been bothered that no matter how much Texas Nameplate improved its processes, the resulting product was just about always the same. He said you really can’t tell the difference between a nameplate made by his father 60 years ago and a nameplate made today. So the idea of creating a code on the nameplates that could be scanned was novel and a little risky. (But who would have thought that someday we would all be walking around with built-in scanners in our smart phones?)

Crownover says he thought back to the Baldrige Criteria with its definitions of innovation, visionary leadership, and a focus on the future, and he made a decision that the small business would try to perfect a chemically based process for creating codes that could be read by scanners. After some research and development and trial and error, it worked. Texas Nameplate applied for and was awarded the patent so that it now can create a digital nameplate.

Now, if a customer has a question about an appliance, for example, with a digital nameplate, he can scan the QR code and instantly tell a technician over the phone the model, type, date bought, brand, and specs.

According to the Criteria, innovation results from a supportive environment, a process for identifying strategic opportunities, and the pursuit of those strategic opportunities that you identify as intelligent risks. Achieving innovation requires resource support and the tolerance of failure. Identifying strategic opportunities and intelligent risks is part of strategy, and pursuing the intelligent risks must be embedded in managing organizational operations.

Crownover says there was an intelligent risk with this new technology, but the “very engaged workforce” at Texas Nameplate worked as a team in the best interest of the company and of the country. The largest part of the challenge, he says, is that customers have not typically seen nameplates on their products as adding value.

“Customers don’t buy nameplates because they think they look cool,” Crownover says, “but because some government official told them to do it. They see [nameplates] as an expense; we see them as an investment. These nameplates provide value because a product with a QR code can be scanned for safety measures, liability, inventory, ISO standards, and even to prevent counterfeiting (you’d be amazed how many valves are counterfeited overseas). It’s going to provide more access to keep up with the product.”

To meet this challenge, Crownover says the company is now talking as much with the marketing people among its customers as with the engineers; the marketing folks have tended to be more creative in terms of innovative technology.

“It took five years to win the Baldrige Award and five years to get this patent,” Crownover says. “Both took a lot of work, a lot of patience, but between the two of them, if somebody was to ask which was more satisfying, I couldn’t tell you. Both were well worth it, and we’re excited. This might take off; it might not, but it doesn’t really matter. Getting the patent was like winning the Baldrige Award. It validated that what we were doing was successful.”

“I get mad at anybody who says he wants to do Baldrige to win,” adds Crownover. “We do it to improve processes. This patent was not really to be egotistical, to say we have a patent, but to revolutionize our industry.”

What innovation or intelligent risk would you pursue to revolutionize your industry?

This column first appeared Nov. 5, 2013, on Blogrige.

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About The Author

Dawn Bailey’s picture

Dawn Bailey

Dawn Bailey is a writer/editor for the Baldrige Program involved in all aspects of communications, from leading the Baldrige Executive Fellows program to managing the direction of case studies, social media efforts, and assessment teams. She has more than 25 years of experience (18 years at the Baldrige Program) working on publications and education teams. Her background is in English and journalism, with degrees from the University of Connecticut and an advanced degree from George Mason University.