Powering Innovation in Rolls-Royce’s Engineering Culture

By Steven Melendez |  January 18, 2016

How does Rolls-Royce, maker of jet engines, nuclear reactors for submarines, and stabilizers for cruise ships enhance innovation within an engineering-centric culture? At the recent World Innovation Convention in Berlin, Hardev Ubhi, the $20 billion company’s Head of Innovation, discussed how the company is working to bring new tools and new thinking into an organization that is understandably obsessed with safety, precision, and quality.

With technological trends sometimes surfacing or maturing faster than the company expects, or new products or approaches appearing out of nowhere, “If we don’t innovate, we will die an as organization,” Ubhi said.

While many still associate Rolls-Royce, founded in 1906, with luxury vehicles, that division was spun off as Rolls-Royce Motors in 1973. Ubhi showed this slide to describe the company’s vision, which includes creating more fuel-efficient engines with lower emissions, and its annual investment in research and development.

The British company has a global workforce of 54,000. Roughly 15,500 of them are engineers, not all of whom are eager to experiment with novel technology. “You’ve always got that challenge between engineers wanting to do things very safely, and then asking them to think outside the box,” Ubhi said.

“What we’ve tried to do is encourage people to ask open questions,” she says — and not be too critical of ideas at their earliest stages.

That has involved initiatives like innovation awards and forums; posters promoting the company’s vision of the future; and an online innovation portal that lets the company pose challenges and solicit possible solutions from employees across the globe, she says.

“It could be a challenge around a product, [or] it could be a challenge around how we go about creating a better workplace,” says Ubhi.

And often the best answers don’t come from the corporate departments that are familiar with or connected to the problem; that has demonstrated that the portal can help overcome some of the company’s inherent conservatism by letting employees take a crack at problems even when they’re not “experts” familiar with all the supposed constraints.

Ubhi reports monthly to an innovation board, composed of some of the Rolls-Royce’s top executives. She says that innovation at Rolls-Royce is about delivering new products and services before customers have even asked for them, and also about ensuring that the company’s culture allows innovation to thrive.

“For Rolls-Royce, we see innovation as value,” Ubhi says. “It has to either provide value for our customers, or it has to provide value in terms of giving us a competitive advantage.”

The company thinks about new technologies on a 20-year time horizon.

  • Vision 5: Near-term technologies that we have under control and are embedding in products.
  • Vision 10: Leading-edge, validated technologies for application in the medium term. Most of these are at demonstration level today and will feature in the next generation of products.
  • Vision 20: Emerging, or as yet unknown, technologies which may be applied across our product range in both Aerospace and Land & Sea.

But as with all R&D intensive companies that develop roadmaps and timelines for their own technology development, Rolls-Royce is keenly aware that trends sometimes arrive faster than you expect, or that a truly radical innovation by another player could shock and disrupt one of the industries in which it operates.

“But what is nice is when we produce the shock,” she says, pointing to designs the company’s recent work in unmanned ships, which have the potential to reduce fuel consumption and the risk of piracy, since there’d be no hostages to capture. “It was a shock that we produced in the marketplace,” she says. That work came out of the company’s Blue Ocean team, which “focuses on disruptive game-changing innovations” in maritime technology.

And the company is realistic that not every idea, investment, or exploration of a new area will pan out. “If we do spend money on a particular technology that doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world,” she says. “We learn from it.”

Below are some of the mechanisms that support innovation at the company, including the Innovation Portal, where challenges are posted.