The Innovation Journey at Unifrax

Joseph Fernando, Unifrax

Joseph Fernando
Global Director, Innovation & Business Development
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Joseph A. Fernando, PhD is a results-oriented leader active in the areas of Innovation and R&D for the past 20+ years. Joseph has been the driving force behind breakthrough advances and technology platforms that were developed at Unifrax to service key growth markets including automotive emissions technologies, commercial aircraft & marine fire protection systems and solutions for industrial pollution via improved filtration and thermal management technologies. Joseph is passionate about the intersection of strategy and innovation and in mobilizing the entire organization to become part of the innovation process through crowdsourcing, external collaboration/partnerships and cross-functional involvement. He has served as an adjunct professor at Niagara University on the topics of Strategic Marketing and Innovation and currently leads the early stage R&D initiatives, business development and global innovation activity at Unifrax.

Video Transcript:

Director of innovation and business at Unifrax. Joe has been the driving force behind breakthrough advances in technology platforms that were developed at Unifrax to serve its key growth markets. Joe is passionate about the intersection of strategy and innovation and in mobilizing the entire organization to become part of the innovation process through crowdsourcing. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Joe Fernando. Welcome, Joe. Good to see you again.

Thank you.

All right. I think the clicker's on the podium.

Thank you, Paul. So now that Paul's woken everyone up and the room is energized, it's great. So first of all, first of all, great to be here. My first year, this is my first year at the Ignite Innovation Summit and really, I've got to say kudos to the Spigit folks. It's really is a great, great program, great event and really a super place to network and we all have the same, the common theme of taking back this passion of innovation to our respective organizations so it's really something.

I was thinking about this yesterday in terms of just the diversity of the types of organizations that are here. We're a small manufacturing company, small, medium sized manufacturing company but there's telecom, pharmaceuticals, IT, banking. I mean, it's a incredibly diverse group here in this room and yet we have this common theme of the fact that we're all passionate about innovation and we're trying to drive innovation in our respective organizations. So what I think what's interesting is that it's really the fact that we're ... It's our difference and our diversity that makes this, the interaction interesting and how we're using the platform, how we're using it differently. So again, kudos to the Spigit Group for putting this together.

So let me get this. Here we go. So today, my talk is going to be about our, Unifrax's journey and I want to emphasize the word journey because that ... That's come up in a couple of talks before because it really is a journey and there's really no end point but it's about learning and figuring it out as we go. We've been on this journey of implementing an enhanced or revamped innovation process with Unifrax for the last eight months or so, so we're relatively new at this but it's been an exciting, interesting and really challenging but really a very exciting journey so far.

So to start off with, let me, just for context, I'll talk a little bit about our background, the company itself. So Unifrax is a manufacturing company. We're based in Buffalo, New York. About 2,500 employees. Because of the nature of our product, we make a lightweight advance material, insulating type of material. It doesn't ship very well. So we have manufacturing sites all over the world, 27 manufacturing sites, 12 countries, and so for a company of our size, we're spread pretty thin.

Just a little point on in terms of products. We manufacture three, there's three main business units if we will, if you will. There's industrial thermal insulation and actually, let's see. Let's go back a second. Industrial thermal insulation on the left. The automotive products and our specialty fibers. So really what that sort of relates to is steel, aluminum, glass types of industries on the industrial side. Automotive, transportation on the ... In the middle there. Filtration and advanced batteries on the right side there.

So what's interesting is that we've grown through acquisition over the last five or 10 years. The challenge for us has been that because we're in so many different locations, the integration and community between all of our sites has really been quite a challenge. This is even more so on the innovation and product development and the technology side is there's been so ... There's a lot of silos, not just two or three silos, there's a lot of different sites and all of our manufacturing sites tend to act, have been trying to integrate but tend act independently in some cases.

So but that said, we've had a pretty decent history of innovation. So we separated, spun off as our own company from British Petroleum in 1996, independent company. Since then, we've come out with fairly significant hits in terms of product development. We have a pretty mature stage gate like process. So it's we gather ideas. We have a way of doing the market analysis and going through the vetting of ideas and opportunities. We go through and put cross-functional teams together and go through the product development cycle and commercialization. It's a very mature system. But so really, what's the problem? Because I mean, we've come up with some good ... We're in some big industries and we've come up with some good commercialization for the last, over the last 15, 20 years.

So the question is why change? Right? Like what's the problem? Why don't we just keep doing what we're doing? So I think most of you recognize a situation, this sort of situation where we ... You have a lot of wins but after a while, for a variety of reasons, in our case it's because of just simply because of size and the acquisitions and the variety of the different business units start to taper off a little bit. So we looked at the data for this and we looked at the analytics trying to figure out, I looked at it very carefully, trying to see what's actually happening here.

There's really three reasons for that. One is that it's first of all, when you look at a lot of our ... The product development and the process development and the innovation types of activity, it was, it's really about incremental product line extension types of activities. We did have a few step out, game changing types of things but it was few and far between. So that was one significant thing.

The second one was really customer involvement. So now of course we do talk to our customers. We do engage with them but it was the way in which we were doing it and we are doing it. It was really we tend to interpret what they needed, go back to the lab, develop it, go back and see. It really wasn't very close interaction. So first of all, it was recognizing that we needed to improve that.

The third point really was an important one for me in particular because it's really about global, the level of global participation. Here we are with 27 different facilities in 12 countries and we really weren't tapping into that diversity of thought. It was just a waste of, really a waste of resource and waste of ideas. We weren't bringing it in and really doing anything with it. So that was a big one for us.

So hence the goal. The goal for us based on that was really to first of all tap into the diversity of thought, the diversity of ideas, the diversity of ideas and environment. So when I talk about environment, it's really you have the market environments, the different global areas. You have the regulatory environment, even political environment maybe. But the idea was that we needed to capture that. On the other side of it is the ... Just really communication and the collaboration and being able to transfer knowledge from one site to another as opposed to being insulated. So this was really an opportunity to share best practices that we just were not doing as well as we could have.

So central to all of this and we've talked about this, the word culture had come up many times today and yesterday during the workshops and really central to all of this is instilling a cultural change, instilling a shift in thinking if you will and that takes some time. The first word I told you that was a word to think about is the journey and the second one was culture. So at the end of the day here our goal was to enhance our innovation process and as being new at this, we're sort of going through this and figuring it out.

So one of the first things we did because of as with any organization, there's all kinds of things going on. There is, in our case, we had cost reduction programs. We had re-organizations in some of our operation sites. We had safety programs and procurement initiatives and as with any organization, I'm sure there's all kinds of things going on so we needed to break through that a little bit just to kind of get the attention of the organization so that was the step one, is get the attention of the organization. So the first thing we did was really an internal branding initiative, creating a buzz. It was incredibly successful and it was actually an intern that we hired for the summer from the University of Buffalo that would help and help identify some of the graphics and ways to do this.

What we did was we ... It was email communications, lunch meetings, breakfast socials and even working it into existing meeting. That was important one, working it into Monday morning operations meeting and spending five minutes and of course I couldn't do this all myself. We had to kind of communicate out to our plants and the plant managers and the safety leaders and so on and really divvying up that task of getting the message out there. So this was incredibly successful and it got the attention of the organization in general.

So the way we started was in June of 2016, we started off with a very narrow, in hindsight, a very narrow, technical, very technical challenge. What we found was this was good but it was very ... It was just too narrow. We just didn't engage the entire organization. So learning from that, we sort of said, "Okay, we're going to very intentionally try and get as much engagement, as much involvement with the broader organization, not just the technical and the process guys."

So we had arranged from a strategic with a number of the commercial and marketing sales folks. We had one which was just the HR, the human resources folks on training and that was what the Unifrax University is about and that was with the global HR, the human resources people in all the associated groups. We also had the customer service one. Again, a very nontechnical topic but it did include the broader team and then the very one was the one that we did on core values. As of January of this year, we have a new CEO and a number of new leaders in the group and it was an opportunity for the company in general to do some introspection and go through and go through strategic planning and vision, values and so on.

So what better way to do this than use a global platform to pull in ideas from the global organization. So what we did was we focused on core values and there was really no right or wrong answer but what this did was it engaged the entire organization and it was put out by the CEO. It was tremendous in terms of just response. So the big value there is people figured out how to use it and what it was, what this is about and recognize that a lot of their bosses and the leaders of the organization are participating in it. So that was tremendously successful.

Then in parallel to this, we've also had been running and now we're piloting two always on collaboration spaces. The idea here is that they're essentially chat rooms for people that have some common theme. So for example, if we talk about high temperature processing, we make high temperature ceramic fiber and we make them in let's say 10 different sites around the world from Bahrain to Brazil to the US, France, UK and so on. But if there's some place that they could go in and have a discussion, that would be tremendous. Now, so to start off with, we started off by doing a challenge, a time bound challenge and that would then morph into always on community. We did the same thing with customer service, for the same reason, we have folks around the world that are in customer service but they have same questions and they do deal with the same things day to day and they live that same job function.

So a little spotlight on the core values one because this was a tremendous success for us and that it, first of all, this is for us, this was a significant number of people, 800, over 800 people to participate in that so it's of 2,500 employees, this is pretty much the entire group that was the knowledge workers and that had emails. It's a fairly broad question but the idea here was that it's really not ... There's no right or wrong answer. Participate, get some input into the organization and your voice will be heard. It's really very well received. We had a majority of the participation was from outside corporate headquarters which in itself told the story for me. It was great.

We had 93 ideas that came out of it. When I say ideas, they were concepts that was sort of rolled into what our core values were. What resulted was the core values for Unifrax which I'm glad innovation made it there, I didn't have to fight for that one but the idea was that these core values as opposed to being directive and from the executive team down, this came up from the organization and it came about because of a conversation, what people put out there and people own it now. It was really a fantastic result.

So some stats here. Eight months, 415 ideas which for us was fantastic, and 880 comments which again, the interesting thing here from both the ideas and the comments, a lot of it came from outside of our ... The North American space and outside of corporate headquarters and it came from South Africa, it came from Bahrain, it came from India, China, Brazil. That involvement and getting people on this discussion platform was just in itself fantastic. One of the other things, a lot of the good ideas that came up, the ideas that sort of bubbled to the top was surprisingly from people that a lot of us hadn't ... Weren't even aware existed. So folks in South Africa, some of the ideas were really good valuable ideas that got some momentum.

So as far as the key lessons for us in the eight months that we've done this, we sort of broke it up into two. One is organizational, in terms of preparing the organization and getting the organization aligned, because on the one hand, we needed to prepare the organization and get the communication out there. Then the second one was from the standpoint of at a more tactical level in terms of on the challenges and getting ... How do we actually make it work.

So first of all, on an organizational level, from just getting people engaged and aligned, our big question was how we do get the broadest group of people involved in this, how do we get the ... We don't really want anyone out there that has not heard of our UN or the Spigit platform and doesn't know what it is and doesn't know what to do with it. So we wanted to get as many people involved in this as we can.

So the first thing we did was we sort of broke it up into a number of groups and these aren't the functional groups. These were just groups that we sort of said, "You know what, these groups have some impact and can be sort of ... We can put some definition around it and identify some people that are ... That can make the needle move on that." So one or two people from each of these groups and we sort of brought them in so either by making them sponsors, asking them to participate, asking them, sitting down with them and really getting them involved. This, interestingly, this wasn't necessarily for example sales and marketing, it wasn't necessarily the VP of sales and marketing. It was a influential director or manager of marketing for that kind of thing.

The other interesting thing is because of the number of sites that we had, we had innovation champions in a lot of our places. This was either plant managers. It could be the human resources person. It could be just someone that was influential on site that could take the message out there and actually talk about our initiative here. So in doing this, in setting up the challenges, one of the interesting things we did was the cross-functional teams. We made sure they were in fact cross-functional. So if we're talking about the example would be in the sales and marketing side, we put a customer service challenge together and that include the logistics, the shipping guys, the application engineering. So that really included a lot of people from a variety of groups.

Then the second part of this of course is just the need to communicate. That again is another word that's come out a number of times today and yesterday was we can't just put it out there and expect people to get on. We absolutely need to communicate and get the message out there. So when I was on trips to China or any of the other sites where I was there for a different reason, I'd put aside half an hour or an hour and pull a group together and talk about it.

Interestingly, and you guys I'm sure seen it, you can track the response directly. I'd make a presentation, I talk about it, and sure enough the next day there's is peak in participation. So you really have to do that so people get comfortable with the process and with the platform and what it's all about.

So the next one, at the tactical level and that's really about kind of at the challenge level. What the picture here is it sort of represents a high temperature fiberization process and [inaudible 00:21:34] stream of glass that gets fiberized. But what's interesting here is that if you think about all of our different sites, there's say a handful of different sites around the world and at least initially our feeling was that we needed to tailor the challenge so that people kind of felt connected to the challenge, it felt like they had something to offer and contribute and converse about. That will get them used to the whole challenge platform and the ideation concept. So initially at least, our thought was it seems to make sense if we keep it a little bit close to home in terms of the type of question and it's really more about getting some idea sharing between sites. Again, that was very successful.

So first, the next steps, and this is first of all, we have to keep the energy up. What I've recognized is that the biggest challenge for me is just continue to maintain that energy of ideation and kind of continue with the challenges. The second thing really is the virtual collaboration. We absolutely want to use this whole concept of always on concepts just to be able to get people on it, into a common platform in that chat room type of environment. Then the other one is the voice of customer. We can't do this internally. We absolutely, absolutely have to involve the customer and the voice of customer into this and that's over the next year, we're trying, we're going to try and incorporate that. So that's our journey. Questions? Thank you very much.

Outstanding. Have you got time for a couple of questions?


Beautiful. All right. How are we doing? Where are the men with our yellow boxes. Okay, terrific.

Speaker 1:
So you had a slide up there that specifically talked or you were talking about education and communication in particular.


Speaker 1:
I noticed the slide appeared to be in Mandarin or another Asian language.


Speaker 1:
So we're a global company and we typically stack our challenges so that they're offered in multiple languages but obviously reduce the crowd size for any one challenge then. So I'm just curious of your experience and if you ran into any HR and sometimes legal requirement challenges with languages when you're dealing with a global approach.

Yeah and that's a great question because language, language has been a challenge. Some of the feedback that I received was that we would have gotten more participation if the language was ... If there was some language ... But that creates problems also. What we did, we kept it with English for now. Now, what we've also said is that if you feel compelled that you absolutely feel more comfortable putting it in Portuguese or in French, German, go right ahead and we'll figure it out at the backend. So we're small enough that we can do that.

But what we found though is even though people initially say that, English being the working language, we're an American company, people are able to use, at least for us, able to use it as a working language and use English to get the message across most of the time.

Very good. Another question here.

Speaker 2:
The other mic, mic.

Here we go.

Speaker 2:
A question with your core values you put together, that process there, was that when you instructed the people, was that supposed to be reflective values who you are currently or inspirational values, who you would like to be? Did you specify?

Yeah, that's a great question because that was ... It was both of those things. It was a question sort of addressed to the individuals and why do you work for Unifrax, what do you want Unifrax to be and why you ... What do you see as the value in your role, so that kind of thing. It was both current as well as forward looking. So yeah, it was really ... We got responses that were across the board and it was ... Because of the different, it's interesting, because of the different cultural change, we saw a lot of differences but then when you kind of put it together, we sort of group them, a lot of people are saying the same thing, it's amazing. So yeah, it's both.

Speaker 2:

Terrific. Thank you, Joe.

Thank you very much, Paul.

Thanks for coming today. All right, ladies and gentlemen.