Innovation with Guerrilla Tactics

by Monique Vincon

From Idea to Product Interview with Michael König

Being the smallest sewing machine manufacturer in the world, Bernina has always had to focus on innovation to stay one step ahead of their competition. Three years ago they decided to work with HYPE, a leading provider of idea management software. In the following interview, Innovation Manager Michael König gave HYPE some interesting insights into the Bernina innovation process and told us a real success story.

HYPE: Mr. König, what is your company’s core business and where does innovation fit?
König: The Bernina Company is the last remaining private sewing machine manufacturer in the world. We are also the smallest within the sector; therefore we need to come up with surprising and special offers in order to survive in the market. We offer premium products in both quality and price. Given this, our customers naturally expect something special. At its heart Bernina is and has always been one step ahead. For example, in 2003 we produced the first computerized sewing machine that ran on Windows CE. Another Bernina development is the use of the “track ball” as a computer mouse to operate side-to-side sewing machines. Bernina definitely leads the way when it comes to technology; I think we have a special reputation in the industry. The competition look to follow Bernina and try to keep up, therefore innovation is a big deal for us.

What made you consider introducing an innovation management system?
Three years ago Bernina decided to invest further in the management of innovation and therefore created the new position of “Innovation Manager”. I was promoted and able to focus completely on innovation. The first thing I did was to survey the existing innovation process to understand how ideas were brought to Bernina.

Can you describe this process?
Ideas were created by Bernina employees; in addition, some customers passed ideas to their dealer who in turn informed us via e-mail. Sometimes I even received handwritten letters. That’s kind of interesting, but what became clear was that ideas were being received in different formats and at various levels of quality. In addition, ideas were addressed to different departments within Bernina which led to many diverse idea lists. Sometimes these lists got really long, and so for simplicity, less and less space was made available to describe your idea and in some cases it became impossible to tell what the idea was about and who submitted it.

This was the main reason that has led to me saying. “We need some sort of platform through which all ideas pass and make it possible for all departments to use the same process.” We wanted to put in place a central system and ensure no ideas were lost. In addition, we had to make the process more transparent, preventing colleagues from getting frustrated due to submitting the idea for the third time without response, as had happened in the past. We wanted to make sure that employees knew that their ideas have been recorded and their participation is appreciated. These may be straight forward points, but they have a strong impact on the innovation culture.

How did you address these challenges?
In 2007 I started research on several software companies and tools to get an overview and to learn what the deal is with innovation software. Before that I wrote down the features an ideal tool should have, and then I tried to understand which tool best provided these features.

So why did you chose HYPE?
Besides HYPE I found three other systems that looked interesting after the first review. HYPE then worked the fastest; they were also the best to react to our needs and made me motivated to keep going. The modern approach of HYPE had me totally convinced; instead of sending field staff to visit to see what could be done, they presented to me a live online demo including how my list of ideal features could be implemented within HYPE. Just as it should be!

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How did you get started with the new software?
Although we hadn’t budgeted for this activity, we started with an evaluation period where the processes that had been designed to fit our specific needs where almost perfectly configured already. The evaluation of the system helped us to prove that it worked fluidly and without any issues. Using the tool it became clear, that software based innovation management is crucial and after establishing this, further financing wasn’t a problem anymore.

The next steps had been very well planned and I enjoyed the fact that they were achieved without any delays. At first, during the fall 2008, we started with a little group of just five people using the software. Bit by bit we expanded the group adding five further people at every step. This way we were able to test how “it feels” to work with groups of 5, 10 or 15 people. We slowly progressed using a sort of guerilla tactic to implement an innovation management tool.

How many departments and employees work with the system?
We currently have 48 employees from ten different departments, mainly in Switzerland. In my experience, it seems that the departmental discipline is totally irrelevant. In the beginning the whole innovation topic was placed within the technical department. We thought, “A new software, well that’s got to be technical”. For that reason, only engineers were involved initially. Soon we added consultants (professionals acting in an advisory capacity in the field) and employees from education (highly skilled employees who perform worldwide training for sales-support staff) and marketing divisions to broaden the search for ideas. What made me really happy was that our product testers wanted to participate, although they aren’t normally involved in our product development.

How does innovation work now within Bernina? Can you give an example?
Since implementing the software, 200 ideas have been submitted, two of which have led to new product releases. Two other products are on the verge of implementation. I think it’s a good rate and now everything is planned and organized within HYPE.

One of my favorite examples is the idea for the personalization of sewing machines by fitting machines with different “skins”. It was an idea from one of our product testers who visited a furniture store one weekend and got inspired by some designs from the 1970’s. On the following Monday he told me of his idea and I explained the idea management tool to him. I said: “Submit the idea and we’ll see what happens next”. Then things started happing fast, from October 2009 until the end of the year the idea received 46 comments from colleagues across 7 departments, including product testers, product management, software engineers and many others.

The best thing about using the tool is that people start working together who otherwise would never have met. After they meet within HYPE they also start working together and discussing the company. Everything has progressed really fast; in July 2010 the product Bernina DesignSkins® was presented in the United States: personalized sewing-machines, giving customers the chance to either chose different designs or use their own photos. I really think this is a great story!

Bernina DesignSkins® is only offered in the US so far (www.berninausa.com); all the profits are donated to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (www.komen.org). In spring this year Bernina DesignSkins® will enter the Swiss market.

What are your future plans for innovation management?
We are currently considering open innovation and planning to involve our lead users in generating ideas. We have a pilot running in the United States which is our largest market. Again, we’ll start small, but if it works we’ll expand the project to other countries.

The interview was held by Patrick Kruschinski


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  1. Innovations are important. More important yet, the innovation capabilities. Bernina has done well on both scores. // I am not familiar with the market(s), but I have heard the name Bernina. They may face the following strategic issue. If they are in a niche, what is the growth rate of the niche, what are the likely trends in the consumer “musts and wants” that would cause major shifts in the niche, what are the chances that the big boys may come in. In this time and Internet Age, niches can form and deform at the speed of a lubricated lightning.

    Small is beautiful, but either they become too small to survive or they stop being small and beautiful and that involves a cultural shift to match the strategic shift.

    Talking about strategy, I have just published a paper on “StrategicDiversification: An Innovative Approach”. NB It is not yet on my site, but it will be posted on it shortly along with other papers I have published.

    Maybe Bernina could consider capitalizing on its name and on its innovation capabilities in the frame of a strategic diversification. My aforementioned paper provides a useful roadmap. Switzerland has been tagged as numero uno among the innovative countries, bravo Bernina for contributing to it. Dr. W.A. Sussland

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