5 Lessons from COVID-Driven Innovation at Whirlpool Corp.

February 1, 2021

Many large corporates struggle to innovate, as the pressures to keep current products competitive, return quarterly profits, and operate within existing organizational structures often become barriers to innovation. This is the story of how Whirlpool Corp., the Michigan-based maker of appliances, overcame those barriers and stepped up during the COVID crisis to bring much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to our hospitals.

Our story started at the beginning of the pandemic, when our CEO asked us to help the local hospitals. Seven weeks later, we had gone from a blank sheet of paper to PAPR, a powered air-purifying respirator designed to protect healthcare professionals. In that span of time, we designed the device from scratch, tooled it, obtained authorization from the Food & Drug Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, and put it into production in a converted warehouse. 

The powered, air-purifying respirator device (PAPR) created by Whirlpool in collaboration with Dow and Reynolds Consumer Products.

We went on to make thousands of PAPR devices that were distributed to hospitals and are still in use today, working with partners that included Dow and Reynolds Consumer Products. I can say without a doubt that the day we gave the first units to the nurses and doctors was one of the proudest of my career. They literally broke down and cried with joy at having something to keep them safe in the midst of a raging pandemic. 

With this as background, I would like to share with you some of the lessons that allowed us to innovate at such a breakneck pace. Most of these are lessons that we can all apply even as things return to normal — or something like it.

1. It Starts With a Clear and Compelling “Why”

We can do extraordinary things when we believe in something. Work goes from being a job to something that we become passionate about. Engage your team to create and commit to your “why.” In our case this was easy and clear. People around us were getting sick and dying. We all had people in our community or families that were in trouble, and this was our chance to help. The “why” was super-compelling.

Engage your team to create and commit to your “why.” 

2. Know Who Your Stakeholders Are

It sounds like Business 101, but you need to know who is going to influence what you need to deliver. Look beyond what they want and really get to the heart of what they need.

In our case, we had two stakeholders. The hospital staff (our end-users) and our CEO. We spent a lot of time with the hospital staff over the course of the endeavor, but upfront we worked with them to frame the project and create “ballpark” estimates of what we would need to get it done.

This allowed us to secure from our CEO a commitment to budget and resources. This is where many projects fail; without a clear alignment on what the consumer needs are and what the company is prepared to invest, you can end up with rework, soaring costs, and endless delays later in the project.

3. Design Thinking and Iteration Are Essential

Our team spent the first week with the hospital staff creating concepts. Then, we iterated — going through about 10 design cycles in the first week alone. This is a cross-functional team sport. The product must work for the end-user, but we also have to procure parts, make parts, and assemble parts. Everyone on the team must unselfishly help each other solve problems. Often that means you changing your part to make someone else’s part possible. How you do this is critical. You don’t want to get overly invested in any one concept. You need to rapidly weed out the weak ideas. But don’t try guess which are best. Use glue, rubber bands, sticky tape, paper to create prototypes — whatever is the least work so that you can quickly discard or accept solutions. You must work together to understand and validate both your customers’ needs and the needs of all your organization’s internal functions — at the same time. It’s not easy.

4. Pull in the Right People (Rather than Having Them Assigned to You)

We started with just a few people, and later pulled in more. The extra people were not assigned by managers. Instead, team members reached out to those they knew had the right attitude and skills to do what we needed. We ended up with a team that worked extremely well together, without the usual “storming and norming” period. Sure, we had our share of technical problems, but the attitude was, “Okay, what have we got to do to solve it?” Everyone who could help pitched in, regardless of whose problem it was — or who may have caused it. They were outcome-focused, not functionally- or process-focused.

The author, Christian Gianni (right), presenting the first box of PAPR devices to Dr. John Froggatt III, MD of Spectrum Health Lakeland in St. Joseph, Michigan.

As a leader, all I had to do was create the environment for this to happen; keep them true to the objectives; knock down any organizational barriers; and free them to unleash their talent against the problems.

In the end, great people thrive in an environment where they are trusted to do the right thing.

I am a big proponent of co-located teams. My big lesson here was that we could successfully collaborate and innovate virtually. COVID forced us into this, but despite some initial teething problems, we made it work. Of course, you can’t do everything virtually; in our case, the nurses still had to try the product, and we had to build product and manufacturing equipment. But pretty much everything else was organized virtually. With the right attitude, a digital whiteboard, Google Hangouts or Zoom, CAD, and a few other tools, you can make virtual work. The bonus is that you can pull in talent and other companies that might normally not available to collaborate with you.

In the end, great people thrive in an environment where they are trusted to do the right thing.

5. Ask, ‘What is the Process Intent?’

Project discipline was invaluable for us. A great project leader is worth their weight in gold. Choose them wisely and invest in their development. With everyone remote and everything moving so quickly, our project manager kept everyone in sync. Our CAD tools held the one source of the truth for the design, but it was the project leader that was keeping us abreast of problems so we could get ahead of what might need to change. This fostered timely and “unselfish” problem-solving, and it minimized design rework.

Finally, we still used our established processes, despite the speed we were traveling at. Processes should and can always be improved, but what is more important is how you use them. 

To me, processes should be a framework that helps good people do great things, rather than stopping poor people from doing bad things. During our sprint they guided us. We constantly asked ourselves, “What is the process intent?” Then, we figured out how to generate the required results. Often, people apply process too rigorously, which slows them down and doesn’t deliver the results you want.

A great project leader is worth their weight in gold. Choose them wisely and invest in their development. 

Our Role as Leaders: Create the Culture

Innovation is a difficult thing at the best of times, and even more difficult in a large corporation. This recent experience has reinforced in my mind that innovation in a large corporation is possible, given the right culture and leadership.

Our role as leaders is to create the culture for this innovation to happen. So engage with your people. Do they know what the purpose is? Does it inspire them? Do you know what inspires them? Work together to remove the barriers so they can innovate more, learn more, and deliver more. 

We learned a lot from this project, as the pressures of COVID forced us to hone the innovation process, get focused on a clear goal, and move fast. Now, the objective at Whirlpool, and many other companies that worked on high-urgency projects in 2020, is to apply this “war-time mindset” to everyday projects. COVID has been a terrible tragedy of global proportions, but it has also reinforced that we all have the capacity to do extraordinary things when we all pull in the same direction. Hopefully, some of these learnings will help you and your team create the next breakthrough innovation.


Christian Gianni spent more than 10 years at Whirlpool Corp., most recently serving as Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer.