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Whirlpool gets the ideas churning

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Whirlpool wants to be the No. 1 innovator among big-ticket appliance makers. To achieve its goal, it has a formal process for screening ideas.

What you can learn about innovation from Whirlpool:

Define innovation so employees can evaluate new concepts, screening out those that just don’t fit.

At Whirlpool, an idea has to meet this three-pronged definition to be considered for development: It must meet a consumer need in a fresh way; it must have the breadth to become a platform for related products; and it must lift earnings.

Never kill good ideas. Instead, shelve them, and annually review all concepts for possible resurrection.

An idea for a dryer with a steam function was shelved at Whirlpool in 2004, for example, because it didn’t match up with that year’s priorities. Three years later, while working on the company’s Duet line, a manager revived the idea.

Adjust your criteria. Begin with easier requirements to avoid killing off concepts before they can be developed. As projects progress, make criteria more rigorous.

Link idea screening with strategy. A concept may be innovative but still not smart for a company to develop because it would take the company too far afield.

— Adapted from “How Whirlpool Puts New Ideas Through the Wringer,” Jessie Scanlon, BusinessWeek.

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