Inside Moen’s Prototype-Driven Product Development Strategy

By Scott Kirsner |  June 23, 2014

One of the product development strategies at Moen might best be described as “fake it ‘till you make it.” Mike Pickett, who is responsible for strategic innovation at the maker of faucets and fixtures, part of $4.2 billion Fortune Brands, says that it’s impossible to rely on surveys or focus groups when you’re developing a totally new kind of product. “And you can’t show them competitive products, because if it’s truly a strategic innovation you’re developing, there aren’t any,” says Pickett, whose title is VP of Global Strategic Development.

So even though the company’s brand is built upon reliability and durability, Moen sometimes builds semi-working prototypes that consumers can try out. One example: to test a new motion-sensitive faucet that would respond to a user’s hand movements, Moen used a standard faucet with a human operator who could control its operation from behind a one-way mirror. Later, working versions of the product get deployed into consumer’s home for a week or more. “You need to do a longitudinal study to see how it changes their behavior,” Pickett says, “and the way consumers think about the value proposition changes over ten days.” Something that may have seemed mundane at first may turn out to be indispensable — or vice versa. And Pickett says that listening to consumers explain the benefits of a new product helps Moen marketers “learn what resonates, because you can say the words that consumers say after they use the product. Like, ‘It saved me a lot of water.'”

Activating Emotional Excitement

“With our prototypes, if we’re not activating emotional excitement about the product, we’re probably not on the right track, and we’ll keep working,” Pickett says. He describes innovation at Moen as a process that involves “learning loops.” “After we create an initial hypothesis,” he says, “we ask what we learned, and what we should try next. Always, the hypothesis we start with isn’t where we end up.”

With the MotionSense technology, Moen acknowledged that it didn’t have all of the necessary experience with electronics, and so the company found a partner that did. “We leveraged that company to do the part of the product we didn’t know how to do,” Pickett says.

When the MotionSense faucet launched in the market in 2012, sales exceeded Moen’s expectations several times over, Pickett says, taking off faster than the typical new product. “We were very pleased with the performance,” he says.

The goal of innovation for Moen, as Pickett describes it, is that “when consumers are really looking for things that matter in our space, they’re going to come to Moen.” In the company’s early days, mixing hot and cold water with a single handle was the key innovation that established the Moen brand. Now, “we’re trying to do things that matter to people. So we always ask, ‘Do people care? Is this a better way?'”

Transferring Ideas to Business Units

The area he’s working on currently is whether the company needs dedicated people to serve as a kind of “innovation shepherd,” helping support new products as they move from the innovation group into the company’s business units. “You want to engage your commercialization partners in the company early enough, and at the end of the transition process, they’re grabbing the wheel of the bus, and you’re supporting them, continuing to manage the higher areas of uncertainty. I don’t want to disrupt what we’re doing in the core business, but we just want to teach a few people who will be able to do that kind of transition work.”

Pickett shared the slide below, which lays out the seven elements of the Strategic Innovation Management system at Moen. “We don’t view it as something that is based on innovation events that you might hold once or twice a year,” he says. “It’s a continuous process. We’re working it every day.”