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Dr. Berger Discusses Ecolab's Innovation Process

August 17, 2011

Ecolab was named one of “The World’s Most Innovative Companies” by Forbes magazine earlier this week. To better understand how our internal innovation process works when it comes to new product development, we sat down with Larry Berger, Ecolab’s chief technical officer and senior vice president of RD&E.

Our Phase Gate process was implemented several years ago. Can you describe that process and how that helps the innovation process? How has it evolved over the years?

Phase 0 is inarguably the most important part of the funnel, and yet the most challenging to quantify. Working to get the best targets upfront pays huge dividends through the course of development. Over the past several years we have continued to strengthen our Phase 0 process  to ensure we adequately define the “voice of customer,” market success factors and product design requirements for all of our new product development. While never perfect, we are working to make it more robust. And recognizing the imperfect world we live in, we will continue to test and retest critical requirements, answer open questions and refine goals during the course of development in order to ensure performance, cost and quality targets are met.

How do you keep innovation top of mind at R&D facilities around the globe?

We are fortunate to have RD&E and Marketing associates who are constantly striving to find new ways to exceed our customer expectations. We want to be the first to replace ourselves. Our teams put a real premium on spending time with customers to understand their challenges, and find new and better ways to deliver cleaner, safer and healthier solutions. Increasingly our global customers want similar programs wherever they operate. We are using best practices to leverage our anchor technologies and the size of our institutional and industrial organization gives us unique advantages here.

How do you foster collaboration at RD&E between businesses, between regions/countries, between cross-disciplines (Marketing and R&D, or Procurement and R&D)?

Innovation is an enterprise process which is truly multidisciplinary. Alignment among our project teams is the single most important ingredient in success. Our collective glue here is to focus on the customer and exceed expectations. We are a entrepreneurial and competitive organization – and channeling this focus externally makes it work. We can all rally around winning and serving customers. In the end, that is the only yardstick that matters. And our global supply chain, marketing, sales and RD&E groups each have their own unique roles in making it happen. I know all of our functions take shared pride when we get it right, and we jointly “own it” when we don't. Customers are counting on us. We each need to personalize that commitment.

Metrics are becoming more important to our business and our customers. How to you track metrics/measurement when it comes to innovation?

We have robust metrics to measure and ensure we are creating value from our innovation. For example, we track our vitality index which is a measure of the freshness of our product offerings ( this measures percent of company revenue derived from products introduced in past 5 years). Our goal is 35 percent, which we are delivering. We also track our new product launches. The goal is to grow our new product pipeline two times our organic growth rate. This year we will introduce our second largest pipeline in the company’s history. Finally, we track performance of all major launches globally. That way we learn from our successes and our misses – and we surely have these too. But learning from our disappointments is essential to keep the process evolving and to improve. Building a rhythm for continuous improvement and always asking ourselves, "What did we learn? How do we act on it?," creates momentum for excellence.

What is the one thing that is surprising to people when you talk about innovation, especially innovation at Ecolab?

Our products touch people in so many ways, every day, to make their lives better. Behind the scenes, our hospitals, our restaurants, our food chains – globally – are safer because of Ecolab innovation. If you look for it, you will see it! Moreover, when you look at the collective impact our innovation is having across our end markets, it is evident we are steadily transforming this space. The pace of change is faster than most of us realize. Many product offerings which were best-in-class not too long ago, would not cut it today. The premium on energy, labor and water management has created a sea change for new innovation in foodservice, pest, food and beverage, and textile markets. Similarly, in health care, infection prevention, public reporting, patient awareness and economics are driving dramatic changes. We are improving our products to help all of these markets improve how they deliver their services and, in turn, making our world cleaner, safer and healthier every day.

Our Phase Gate process was implemented several years ago. Can you describe that process and how that helps the innovation process? How has it evolved over the years?

Phase 0 is inarguably the most important part of the funnel, and yet the most challenging to quantify. Working to get the best targets upfront pays huge dividends through the course of development. Over the past several years we have continued to strengthen our Phase 0 process  to ensure we adequately define the “voice of customer,” market success factors and product design requirements for all of our new product development. While never perfect, we are working to make it more robust. And recognizing the imperfect world we live in, we will continue to test and retest critical requirements, answer open questions and refine goals during the course of development in order to ensure performance, cost and quality targets are met.

How do you keep innovation top of mind at R&D facilities around the globe?

We are fortunate to have RD&E and Marketing associates who are constantly striving to find new ways to exceed our customer expectations. We want to be the first to replace ourselves. Our teams put a real premium on spending time with customers to understand their challenges, and find new and better ways to deliver cleaner, safer and healthier solutions. Increasingly our global customers want similar programs wherever they operate. We are using best practices to leverage our anchor technologies and the size of our institutional and industrial organization gives us unique advantages here.

How do you foster collaboration at RD&E between businesses, between regions/countries, between cross-disciplines (Marketing and R&D, or Procurement and R&D)?

Innovation is an enterprise process which is truly multidisciplinary. Alignment among our project teams is the single most important ingredient in success. Our collective glue here is to focus on the customer and exceed expectations. We are a entrepreneurial and competitive organization – and channeling this focus externally makes it work. We can all rally around winning and serving customers. In the end, that is the only yardstick that matters. And our global supply chain, marketing, sales and RD&E groups each have their own unique roles in making it happen. I know all of our functions take shared pride when we get it right, and we jointly “own it” when we don't. Customers are counting on us. We each need to personalize that commitment.

Metrics are becoming more important to our business and our customers. How to you track metrics/measurement when it comes to innovation?

We have robust metrics to measure and ensure we are creating value from our innovation. For example, we track our vitality index which is a measure of the freshness of our product offerings ( this measures percent of company revenue derived from products introduced in past 5 years). Our goal is 35 percent, which we are delivering. We also track our new product launches. The goal is to grow our new product pipeline two times our organic growth rate. This year we will introduce our second largest pipeline in the company’s history. Finally, we track performance of all major launches globally. That way we learn from our successes and our misses – and we surely have these too. But learning from our disappointments is essential to keep the process evolving and to improve. Building a rhythm for continuous improvement and always asking ourselves, "What did we learn? How do we act on it?" creates momentum for excellence.

What is the one thing that is surprising to people when you talk about innovation, especially innovation at Ecolab?

Our products touch people in so many ways, every day, to make their lives better. Behind the scenes, our hospitals, our restaurants, our food chains – globally – are safer because of Ecolab innovation. If you look for it, you will see it! Moreover, when you look at the collective impact our innovation is having across our end markets, it is evident we are steadily transforming this space. The pace of change is faster than most of us realize. Many product offerings which were best-in-class not too long ago, would not cut it today. The premium on energy, labor and water management has created a sea change for new innovation in foodservice, pest, food and beverage, and textile markets. Similarly, in health care, infection prevention, public reporting, patient awareness and economics are driving dramatic changes. We are improving our products to help all of these markets improve how they deliver their services and, in turn, making our world cleaner, safer and healthier every day.

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