Benton Harbor, Michigan, have you heard of it? It’s a big enough town that it shows up on the weather maps of Chicago TV stations. It’s directly across Lake Michigan from Chicago. It’s in tourist area, but it’s hardly a garden spot — not nearly as quaint as nearby victorian-gingerbreadish St. Joseph.
Locals call the area Michiana, a term to describe the cachement of small and medium sized towns along the Indiana-Michigan border (Gary, Michigan City, Niles, Elkhart, South Bend, Three Oaks, New Buffalo…). Michiana is a lovely area — if you like the beach, vineyards, and the woods. It’s not exactly Silicon Valley.
It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time Benton Harbor was home to one of my favorite high tech companies of all time, Heathkit, which sadly has gone the way of the Edsel. Heathkit was how Americans of a certain age learned the intricacies of electronic engineering — by making their own components and Hi-Fi stereos from kits. The failure of Heathkit is an example of a company that simply didn’t change with the times. Michiana was once populated by manufacturing companies like Heathkit, and Magnavox (now owned by Philips), but for the most part those companies are long gone and the jobs have gone with them.
This backdrop of midwest, rust-belt decay is in stark contrast to Benton Harbor’s Whirlpool Corporation. Whirlpool, against long odds, is making innovation happen in a world class way. In Michiana. In Benton Harbor. Whirlpool has been around for over 100 years, but in my view that only makes their current success all the more notable. Odds were Whirlpool would fail, just like Heathkit.
How did they do it? How did Whirlpool manage to reinvent itself?
The answer to those questions can be found in a terrific article (Story: Whirlpool’s Innovation Journey: An On-Going Quest for a Rock-Solid and Inescapable Innovation Capability). This story is about exactly how Whirlpool has made itself into a worldwide innovation juggernaut. It’s not light reading. It is a serious and comprehensive treatise — a positive case study in how to manage the complexity of innovation. Author Moises Norena (Global Director of Innovation at Whirlpool) gives us a detailed and holistic inside look at just how difficult it can be to lead in the ultra-competitive consumer market of big-ticket appliances. The article cites influences in terms of theories and books Whirlpool used. It talks about how CEO’s got the momentum going, and how different frameworks and initiatives guided the ball downfield. It’s a surprisingly explicit piece and for that reason it’s of high value for any organization looking to begin, or enhance it’s innovation journey.
If you’re looking for detailed insight on how to big organizations can innovate, you’d be well served to take the time to read how Whirlpool does it. Kudos Moises for the great article, and kudos Whirlpool, keep moving!