GE is an icon of management best practices. Under CEO Jack Welch in the 1980s and 1990s, they adopted operational efficiency approaches (“Workout,” “Six Sigma,” and “Lean”) that reinforced their success and that many companies emulated. But, as befits a company that has been around for 130 years, GE is moving on. While Lean and Six Sigma continue to be important, the company is constantly looking for new ways to get better and faster for their customers. That includes learning from the outside and striving to adopt certain start-up practices, with a focus on three key management processes: (1) resource allocation that nurtures future businesses, (2) faster-cycle product development, and (3) partnering with start-ups.
Resource allocation: incubating a protected class of ideas.
A fundamental challenge of any firm – especially a huge global company such as GE – is how to balance nurturing tomorrow’s future businesses, with the resource demands for running and improving today’s operations. You need to think like a portfolio manager, allocating resources both to innovate in your core and for the future. Knowing that today’s operations will almost always win the lion’s share of resources, you need to consciously create a protected class of innovative ideas to invest in, even if money is tight.
For example, GE incubated an energy storage company (“Durathon”), which has gone from the lab to a $100 million business in five years. In 2009, GE’s transportation unit developed a new sodium battery for a hybrid engine for locomotives. Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock told me they looked to see how they could take this battery technology to new markets. After first targeting backup power for data centers, they settled on providing backup power for cell phone towers in countries with unreliable electrical grids, such as in Africa and India. Says Comstock, “You have to believe that energy storage has a big future.” It took the financial backing and technical support of GE and the support of CEO Jeff Immelt to nurture this business through numerous technical and business model changes. Marketing plays a catalyst role, providing growth funding. And after accumulating significant experience with this portfolio approach, GE is focusing today on fewer things that they’re incubating in a bigger way.
Product development: getting closer to customers and moving faster.
Organic growth depends on discovering breakthrough ideas, leveraging technology, and getting closer to customers. As it turns out, getting the breakthrough ideas is usually the easy part. The hard part is executing the idea to build a business, which takes a process that actually works. In our current fast-paced environment of constant change, you need a product development approach that relies on many fast cycles of experimentation, reviewing prototypes early on with customers to learn what provides value, and being flexible if customer feedback suggests new directions.
As I described in a previous post, GE is working with Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author recognized for pioneering the Lean Startup movement. The Lean Startup approach is enabling GE to take “Agile” and “Lean” methods, which they had been using to improve operations, and apply them to starting businesses. They have branded it “FastWorks.” And it has helped not only provide a new product development process, but a role model for a new culture based on a venture model. People in finance at GE, typically focused on return on investment and payback periods, love FastWorks because they get a better throughput of ideas.
Partnering: getting ideas from start-ups.
Leading companies have been using “Open Innovation,” collaboration, and joint ventures for many years to get a shot of adrenaline, find new markets, and get to them faster. What’s new is partnerships by large and successful companies with start-ups for joint incubation of innovative business ideas. Despite all their resources, big companies realize they can’t tackle big challenges alone. They need to tap into young, entrepreneurial companies filled with brilliant data scientists, restless tinkerers, and passionate innovators. On the other hand, start-ups benefit from the resources, customer relationships, expertise, and scale of the established companies.
GE has actively created several “ecosystems” with start-ups. For example:
- In March the company formed a joint venture with Local Motors, a “co-creation company” that taps into an online community of car enthusiasts (engineers, mechanics, and industrial designers) to design new vehicles. GE intends to use Local Motors’ crowd-sourced workforce model to design new products, initially for GE Appliances.
- GE has formed a partnership with Quirky, a crowd-sourced innovation platform, to invent connected products for the home: innovators submit ideas, which are voted on by Quirky’s community, and the promising ones are refined by Quirky’s designers and engineers.
- Through Kaggle, another GE partner that is a community of data scientists, GE asked for algorithms to optimize airline flight paths and reduce delays – ultimately improving air travel overall.
- In advanced manufacturing, GE turned to GrabCAD, asking their experts to help redesign a metal jet engine bracket with the goal of making it 30% lighter while preserving its integrity and mechanical properties like stiffness. Participants from 56 countries submitted nearly 700 bracket designs, and the winner was an engineer from Indonesia who reduced the weight of the bracket by 84%.
- Finally, GE has created GE Ventures, a group in Silicon Valley that spends their time not just investing ($150 million annually), but forming technical and commercial collaborations with startups in energy, health, software, and advanced manufacturing.
GE’s current focus on innovation and on these three key management processes – which draw on the techniques and the energy of start-ups – represents the latest wave of improvement over a long and successful history. By working with and emulating start-ups, GE hopes to both grow their core offerings and disrupt their current way of doing business — and to keep an old company young. And as one of the world’s largest and most respected companies, it’s easy to imagine that other large companies will soon be following suit.