1. Hermann, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Since being a child I love food, and curious to know how all that food is produced studying food technology was a no-brainer. And since then I have spent my time in food R&D and have had the pleasure to work for a small company as well (the biggest part of my professional life) for a multi-national big player. In the course of my journey I have touched on most aspects in R&D, from the “invisible” (ingredients, bacterial starter cultures), via products and manufacturing lines to the macroscopic context of competitor watch and consumer insight. I only can confirm the aphorism of Leonardo da Vinci: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else”. For some years now LEAN aspects in R&D have become a passion, with a clear focus on the necessary mind-set and simple, pragmatic tools that are 3U: Useful, Usable, Used. But life is not only work: my family plays a big role in recharging my batteries, as well as doing sports each day, keeping my garden and rose flowers in good shape and letting flow my creativity when doing oil painting …
2. How do you define Innovation?
There are most probably as many answers as people you ask. For me, innovations are improvements / changes that allow for significant additional revenue/profit, creating economic value. Reason for being as broad as such is that I think this triggers the right mind-set. In a sense, that for coming up with innovation there is more than just product thinking. Innovation in above sense can come from anywhere along the value chain. It also opens up to the thinking of “doing less”, eliminating elements in a product/service that the consumer/customer does not value and thus is not willing to pay for, not to forget new ways to bring products/services to the consumer/customer. It includes the “new” aspect, but not necessarily new to everybody. We should also be open to take ideas from outside and improve upon or adapt it to our needs/business. And last but not least, it includes significant improvements in quality as well, as this is the guarantee for consumer trust and thus for repeated purchase/use. Another interesting aspect is timing. The best innovation will remain a nice idea if the consumer is not yet ready for it … or you don’t have the means to communicate effectively why he/she now needs it.
3. Is it true that for the most of us we resist change?
Why would someone be against change that brings advantages? Will anybody refuse to have more fun during work, be more confident for the future, and have his /her ideas and contributions being valorized? I think the answer is no. We resist change if there is fear of the unknown, if we don’t know the consequences for us. Full transparency, clear and coherent messages whatever the level is where the communication happens, clear leadership and commitment from top levels are crucial to get people on board and engaged. And most importantly communication has to be coherent also over time, as the smallest doubt will bring people falling back to old habits and their old comfort zone.
4. R&D and Continuous Improvement, how are they correlated?
From a pure mathematical point of view I don’t think we can talk about “correlation”. Depending on what we improve, the impact can be small or huge. I would not stress too much the “continuous” aspect but more the general attitude of “We can do better”. Important in this context is that you know where one will have the greatest impact by doing things differently. Using a lot of resources to improve minor aspect of R&D and daily work can in the end distract from the real important areas. For example, if your design phase is not working well and your project portfolio is not what will make a difference to your clients, then all improvements in the later part of the development process will have no impact (first do the right thing, then do it right, not inverse). So I would say that you need the mindset of continuous improvement channeled by clear targets, which are the result of an extensive evaluation of your current situation.
Additional targets for improvement should come from the analysis of what went well and what went wrong in the past. Last but not least, we should attack problems as soon as they appear, better even before. To do this we need transparency and a problem solving mindset (in contrast to blaming and “not me” attitude). One tool to help in this is visual project management.
5. How are team management and leadership by the director important in succeeding in innovation?
Innovation looks into the future, new ways to serve the consumer/customer, differentiation from competition, etc. This needs a clear vision, empowerment and support/reward from the top in order to set the direction and to motivate people at all levels and not just within R&D referring back that innovation has to come from all parts of the total value chain. It is the leadership part which is essential to do the right thing. The latter will be largely determined by the overall company/business targets. This alignment part has elements of leadership and management. The management plays an important role when we talk about execution. It should set the frame for the how, but also here more in the sense of certain principle elements like visual / transparent project management, problem-solving mind-set, good project design phase, etc. And of course it includes the people development part, ensuring the right feedback and learning of people at all levels. Both (team) management and leadership are crucial to success and the border between the two is often fluent.
6. Does a good leader in today’s world need to balance both the goal achievement part with the people skills part?
Goals are achieved by people, therefore the skills of the people (including technical and personal/soft skills) are key. However in today’s rapid changing environment (technical, consumer expectations/ competitive landscape) we cannot anymore rely only on experts in specific domains. We still need them, but we have to focus more and more on people with excellent knowledge in basic science, able to apply their knowledge successfully in diverse areas or applications. We need people to think transversal and open to focus / change direction when needed without losing efficiency. Important in the goal setting part is the evaluation of in-house competences at an early stage so that in case there is a gap in critical competence this can be filled either with training or more and more via external collaboration. To do so, it is important that we are honest when doing the evaluation of what we know and what we don’t know. A good practice is to evaluate with each project what went well and what did not, and to act upon the outcome. In all this we need to remember that as with “change” people need to know what it will bring to them, how any learning, whether by teaching, coaching, and/or practicing will help to progress personally and professionally. Providing this balance between company and people goals in a transparent and coherent way is a great challenge, but success in doing so will critically contribute to the long-term success of the company achieved by motivated and engaged people.