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One way to think of Whirlpool Corp. would be as an appliance company that's innovative. But a better characterization might be that Whirlpool has become an innovation center that makes appliances.

The business of manufacturing dishwashers and refrigerators isn't what it used to be at 93-year-old Whirlpool. An initiative launched five years ago to create a culture of creativity has reinvigorated the company. "One of the significant outcomes is the amount of employee engagement," says Nancy Snyder, corporate VP of leadership and competency development.

The transformation began with an "innovation boot camp" for senior managers and then rippled out to include all of the company's 68,000 employees. Whirlpool developed virtual-teaming software, dubbed the Innovation Pipe, and created a portal where employees could interact and share information on ideas. "If you have innovation from everyone and everywhere, you need to democratize knowledge," Snyder says.

Where necessary, Whirlpool's business processes were rejiggered. "We understood we had a lot of organizational and infrastructure things to do," Snyder says. "We had barriers that could have caused us not to be successful."

The results of the companywide effort can be seen in Whirlpool's products and financial results. New designs such as the Duet front-loading washer-dryer combination, Gladiator GarageWorks garage-organizing system, and Polara refrigerated range"”which keeps food cold for hours, then cooks it"”are contributing to sales growth. After four years of flat sales, revenue rose from $10.3 billion in 2001 to $11.0 billion in 2002, and then to $12.1 billion last year.

In the process, Whirlpool continues to crank out new patents for its innovations. The Duet combo alone has resulted in about three-dozen patents, a company spokesman says. To get control of its growing portfolio of intellectual property, Whirlpool plans to use Invention Machine Corp.'s Goldfire Innovator, software designed to help researchers manage their output.

Whirlpool now pulls ideas from its customers rather than pushing concepts that may not be needed, by connecting what Snyder calls the "fuzzy front end" of customer needs with the back end of Whirlpool's engineering resources. End result: a new core competency in managing innovation.

From Information Week

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