Two Paths to Innovation at Stanley Black & Decker

By Scott Kirsner |  March 12, 2014

At Stanley Black & Decker, the $8 billion tools and appliances giant, there isn’t a single right way to foster innovation. John Cunningham, president of the consumer products group at the Baltimore company, thinks there are at least two.

One, the Breakthrough Innovation team, focuses on “longer track, bigger prospects that are much more risky,” Cunningham says. “They have prototyping capabilities, and access to universities, and they’re breaking through some ‘this can’t be done’ challenges at the current technology level.” That team developed 10 project ideas, and one, Cunningham says, has evolved into a product that will launch late next year. “It’s truly a revolutionary product,” he says, but it will have taken about four years from conception to the market.

The second tack at Stanley Black & Decker is called Total Innovation, which allows employees in engineering, marketing, legal, finance, and other departments to participate in innovation projects that get evaluated at a “science fair” event every six months. “We give certain guardrails around user frustrations, or problems that exist,” Cunningham says. “Then, we let the engineering team dedicate 10 percent of their time to solving those problems.” At the biannual event, management reviews the solutions and selects those that will go on to the company’s standard, milestone-oriented development process. “About 40 percent move on, and 60 percent we shelve, or we send them back to be developed further,” Cunningham says.

The Total Innovation process will launch its first product into the market next month, a new kind of cordless drill machine with AutoSense Technology that is intended to eliminate the problem of stripping screws, or driving them too far into a piece of wood. “We developed a system that puts a microprocessor in the drill that controls the torque electronically,” Cunningham explains. “It makes the drill much more straightforward for a non-expert to use. You don’t have to understand how the clutch works.” 

Cunningham says that product revenues will be a key way Stanley Black & Decker measures the success of the two different approaches. Both Total Innovation and Breakthrough Innovation report in to him.

One challenge he’s still working on: a surplus of good ideas. “We’ve done three events where we show off what the Total Innovation teams have been working on, and we now have about 60 great ideas sitting on the deck. We don’t have enough resources to get to all 60,” he says. So the company is trying to develop new ways to work with suppliers and partners that have engineering capabilities, to work on projects that “are so new and speculative where we might not want to bet our resources on them.”

“We looking for that sustainable path of innovation, where you can test and learn constantly,” Cunningham says. “The danger in any organization is that you wind up analyzing things too much and convincing yourself not to do things.”

Below, he shares three slides from a recent internal presentation about the Total Innovation process.

CDR is “consumer-driven research.” On the -3 through 8 scale above, Cunningham explains, “-3 to is the front-end research process that incorporates the Total Innovation Process. Milestone 1 – 8 is our traditional development process. Success rate is high in Milestone 1 to 8. Milestone -3 to 0 is the fuzzy front end.”

EE is electrical engineering, ID is industrial design, ME is mechanical engineering. VOC is “voice of the customer.”