How Manufacturer Leviton Found Opportunities to Innovate Amidst the Pandemic

By Curtis Michelson |  July 8, 2021

At the height of the pandemic, in the summer of 2020, I found myself at home finally getting round to a project I had put off for too long; namely, to install a Leviton smart switch so that I could finally say “Hey, Siri, turn on the backyard lights,” et voila, the lights would magically turn on and all my future party guests would go, “Ooh…aaah.”

The author’s back patio in Florida, with voice-activated lighting.

Well, it all went great on the electric installation side. But things got thornier when I tried to connect the switch into our Apple HomeKit network. To my happy surprise, a call to Leviton’s support number quickly delivered answers from an engineer who understood the issue, and promised to send me a brand new switch if the fix didn’t work. It did, and that turned me (and my family) into loyal customers.

I came away wondering how Leviton, founded in 1906 to sell accessories for gas lamps, had been handling other needs and opportunities that emerged over the course of the pandemic.

I connected with two key players at Leviton. John Garbarino is Senior Marketing Manager for Commercial and Industrial products, and a key piece of his portfolio is the Inform industrial internet of things platform. I also spoke with Santino Nemi, Chief Operating Officer of Leviton’s Viscor lighting brand, which is a leader in manufacturing LED lighting products for office towers, schools, healthcare, and industrial spaces.

Even prior to the pandemic, privately-held Leviton was making innovation a priority. Both Garbarino and Nemi described innovation workshops, specialist trainings, onboarding programs for new hires, and even gamified prize programs for next-gen product and service development. For example, they host an annual competition, the Harold Leviton Innovation Award, which is a coveted prize for business units and product groups.

A Casualty — or a Constructive Change?

From an innovation perspective, the first casualty of the pandemic were customer walk-throughs —sessions where engineers would sit down on-site with key customers, and seek to better understand their environments and use cases for Leviton’s products.

As 2020 proceeded, some customers limited Leviton to one rep visiting their site at a time. In a moment of inspiration, Garbarino’s team decided to pack an iPad with some video apps, and thereby enable just one Leviton person at the customer site to bring everyone else at Leviton along for the ride. Virtual customer walk-throughs were born. One unanticipated side benefit: This approach was less intrusive, getting the observers out of the way so that customer’s comments shone through. Garbarino says this will be a standard practice going forward.

Discovering New Business Opportunities

Lighting as a tool for disinfection (think ultraviolet and other forms of light that can kill bacteria and viruses) had been used in medical settings for some time. But with the emergence of COVID-19, Leviton felt that it could be applied to uses in transportation, office, or even home settings. The company was quick to see the need for a trusted player in this space.

With an impending pandemic gold rush of UV charlatans and snake oil salesmen peddling disinfection lighting, Leviton stepped up to define a safe and better way. They paired up with the specifications community to define safe uses of UV lighting along with other forms of visible light technology. The sweet spot moment came when they licensed the 365DisInFx UVA technology from GE Current for use within their lighting brands; it blends UV and visible light to kill viruses and bacteria, safely, in human-occupied work spaces. Leviton’s long experience in various industrial verticals, and their ability to be a trusted brand, helped set up the new “disinfection lighting” products for success.

In a similar vein, Garbarino shared the story of an existing material technology that has been used to prevent the spread of microbes on touched surfaces (think switches and wall plates), which has been in market for years. The innovative move was to take these industrial-strength antimicrobial treated devices to the residential market. Leviton reasoned that consumers and homeowners would still want to put reasonable limits on viral spread in homes. This has forced Leviton to work with experts and develop new skillsets, like consulting with biologists and virologists. The result is a line of products Leviton hopes will further cement its products as the ones that fixer-upper customers will reach for when roaming the crowded aisles of Home Depot or Ace Hardware.

Changes to Innovation Culture

One new discovery for Leviton teams working from home has been the ease of pulling in new voices that may have traditionally been separated from product discovery and development — like sales teams. Leviton’s innovation and engineering labs traditionally housed a small cadre of product managers and engineers who were responsible for developing tech specs. But with the whole company moving just about overnight to Microsoft Teams, new dynamics emerged. A more egalitarian ethic took hold, as other business units and departments realized that they could now participate in — or at least watch — these product spec sessions. At a moment when Leviton needed biological expertise, they also realized they needed the active involvement of sales reps who could identify, and more realistically scope, new product features and designs.

A more egalitarian ethic took hold, as other business units and departments realized that they could now participate in — or at least watch — these product spec sessions.

Another surprising shift for Leviton was a newfound cooperation with third parties, like suppliers, regulators, and even competitors, who all felt the same imperative to bring solutions to market quickly. Essentially, this brought many players together in new forms of co-opetition. What would normally have taken years to move forward shifted to months. Safety was still paramount, but the regulators’ posture became more open to new concepts — supporting safe experimentation, rather than demanding that anything new meet certain specs before it would be considered.

An Emerging ‘New Normal’ for Innovation

From Nemi’s perspective, there is now a new set of drivers for Leviton’s lighting business. Over and above the traditional requirements of safety and energy savings, the new imperative is “wellness.” Health and wellness trends will drive an emerging set of new building standards (literally called “well building standards”), and even an emerging movement called the “right to light,” which aims to define lighting to support people’s ideal circadian rhythms. As Nemi puts it, “When you have your first cup of coffee in the morning, you don’t want this horrible 6000 Kelvin blue light on you.” Wellness will be an ongoing driver and design constraint in this space, he believes.

COVID definitely accelerated Leviton’s product development strategies. A traditional product lifecycle might have spanned 10 to 15 years. They’re thinking now in terms of one to three years, with much more frequent updates through firmware updates and software downloads.

Finally, Garbarino says that Leviton’s new normal has a different pace: “It’s all about speed-to-market,” in his words. COVID definitely accelerated the company’s product development strategies. A traditional product lifecycle might have spanned 10 to 15 years. They’re thinking now in terms of one to three years, with much more frequent updates through firmware updates and software downloads. Leviton acknowledges that “software is eating the world,” and industrial physical goods manufacturers must develop new capabilities to stay relevant.

Leviton teams have been addressing the challenges of the pandemic as they rethink both products and process, positioning the company for continued growth as markets around the world emerge from the pandemic era.

Curtis Michelson is a facilitator of design sprints at Minds Alert and a global partner of Swarm Vision. He recently co-founded a new venture focused on custom research for innovators, INFOdjs.