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A Chain of Innovation: The Creation of Swiffer [Research Technology Management]
[June 14, 2014]

A Chain of Innovation: The Creation of Swiffer [Research Technology Management]


(Research Technology Management Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Thinking about the many stories that contribute to a successful innovation can add depth and perspective to our understanding of how innovation happens.

OVERVIEW: Although we celebrate the lone inventor, innovation typically involves teams, each making a critical contribution to the final success. Thinking about the different stories of each team can help build a richer understanding of how innovation happens. The story of Swiffer's invention, which involves design researchers, business leaders, and others serves as an example.



KEYWORDS: Creativity, Design process, Customer insights, Prototyping In stories of heroic invention, we celebrate the lone inventor, imagining a single straight line from confronting a challenge to uncovering the solution. Of course, the real world of in- novation is more complex. Most discoveries are made by teams, not lone inventors, and many innovations are devel- oped simultaneously by different teams working inde- pendently across the globe (Merton 1961). Some have even argued that it is the technology itself that is the main protagonist-that innovations want to happen (Kelly 2008).

In commercial innovation, success depends on a series of innovations often carried out by different teams in sequence: consumer insight, technology, business model, brand, distri- bution, and so on. Each of these contributions in the chain of innovation is vital for the ultimate success of the new product or service, and each of these teams can rightly say that they made it happen because without their contribution it would not have happened.


The full story of any innovation, then, is the product of several different stories, each told by a different team in- volved. Generally, stories of invention are presented from just one point of view. In the story of Rashomon, different protagonists tell their version of the same story according to their self-interest.1 In journalism, the "Rashomon Effect" de- scribes how different interpretations of the same events can add up to a fuller, more detailed account-or contradict each other and make it difficult to determine the truth.

Similarly, in innovation, thinking about these many sto- ries can add depth and perspective to our understanding of how innovation happens. I am going to describe in detail the invention of Swiffer from the point of view of a design re- searcher working to develop a new concept in floor cleaning. Then I will briefly describe the role of some other players in the creation of Swiffer based on other published accounts to give a more complete account of what happened. In each story, the role of the protagonist is seen as primary, which is accurate: each link in the chain of innovation is essential.

The Design Researcher's Story In 1994, Procter & Gamble was looking to grow through in- novation. Craig Wynett, Director of Corporate New Ventures, watching his wife clean their kitchen at home, made the ob- servation that launched the innovation process that led to Swiffer: "There has got to be a better way to clean a floor." Craig pulled together a team of people from the P&G Corpo- rate New Ventures group, the design firm Continuum, the advertising agency Nothlich Stolley, and some experts from the hard-surface cleaning and paper divisions at P&G. His mission for this diverse group was simple: find a better way to clean a floor. Together with my colleague Noelle Dye, I had the privilege of leading the Continuum team.

P&G already had a significant business in floor cleaning with the Mr. Clean line of detergents, and the company's R&D department knew a lot about the chemistry of floor cleaning, which they explained to us. However, we were not sure the future of floor cleaning was in better chemistry, or even in bet- ter dispensing of chemistry. We decided to step back and learn about floor cleaning afresh, through the eyes of consumers.

The team set out as design anthropologists to watch how people cleaned their kitchen floor. This was one of the first ventures into ethnographic research at P&G. We visited 18 homes in Cincinnati and Boston, spending about an hour and a half in each. We had no elaborate protocol; we just asked the women, and I am sorry to say they were all women, to clean their floors, in particular the kitchen floor. Mostly we just watched, although when we did not understand why they did something, we asked them to explain. We took notes and video recorded the entire process so that we could analyze it later.

To begin with, some of us focused on how the women used detergent because we had been primed to pay particular attention to that when we learned about the detergent busi- ness. We noted the amount of detergent used, how it was poured, and the temperature of the water. But after a few visits, we began to see the floor cleaning process more clearly and the role of detergent seemed increasingly less important. A thorough cleaning of a kitchen floor took about 45 min- utes; it was a lot of work, and most people did it only once or twice a week. By contrast, people generally wiped down their counter tops much more frequently.

Most of what we noticed is obvious in retrospect but was not anticipated. We had told the customers that we were coming to watch them clean their floors, but more than once, when we got there, the customer had already cleaned the floor-they didn't want us to see their floors dirty. So we ended up watching them clean a clean floor. We were re- minded that people have a strong emotional need to have a clean home when they know people are coming by, even strangers. This reinforced for us how important the cleanli- ness of our homes is to us.

It became clear that floor cleaning was a complex process. The women had to assemble a system of products to get the job done, most of which we had not initially thought of as being relevant to our business. We noticed that generally people swept the kitchen floor before they mopped it, so dustpans and brooms were part of the system. Often people wore old clothes because cleaning a floor was a dirty job. This was the first contradiction we noticed: when you clean, you get dirty. Often people had to move furniture to get easier access to the floor. We saw that people used vacuum cleaners on carpets, but vacuums did not work well on hard floors.

But the real epiphany came after we got back to our studio and looked at the videos. We listed each of the steps required to clean a floor: move furniture, sweep loose dirt, locate com- ponents, mix solution, prepare mop, and so on. It was a very mundane list, but when we put on our anthropologist hats and tried to see what was going on outside of any preexisting framework, we noticed something strange: about half the steps were for cleaning the floor; the other half were for cleaning the mop. If we had come down from Mars we might have concluded that the women were not floor cleaning, but mop cleaning! Why was this? The experts on detergent chemistry had talked about a successive mixing model: dirt is dissolved or suspended in the soapy water stored in the cells of the mop; when the mop is rinsed, this dirt is mixed with the cleaner water in the bucket. As a result, the water in the mop gets cleaner and the water in the bucket gets dirtier. This might be a useful model if you're in the detergent business, but we were not sure that it was the right explanation for what we were seeing. We looked more closely at dirty sponges. Under a microscope it was clear that most of the dirt was stuck to the outside surface of the sponge. We concluded that mops also worked by the adhesion of dirt to a cleaning surface. And then we recognized the second contradiction: the better a mop was at grabbing dirt off the floor, the more difficult it was to clean the mop itself.

From this process of ethnographic fieldwork and studio- based analysis, a clear set of design requirements emerged. We were looking for a solution that: ^ Works for both sweeping and mopping; ^ Does not require you to clean the broom or mop after cleaning the floor; ^ Is clean to use and doesn't make you want to wear old clothes; ^ Is quick and fun so people want to clean more and can have cleaner homes.

The obvious solution to this set of design requirements was a concept we affectionately referred to as "a diaper wipe on a stick" and later branded FastClean. A disposable sheet is at- tached to a handle; dirt sticks to the sheet, and when it is full, you don't clean it-you just throw it away (Figure 1). It is simpler and cleaner to use than a mop, and we could design a disposable sheet that is optimized to have dirt stick to it. And we have a great new business model: selling disposable cleaning sheets.

We were confident that this concept would be successful because it addressed both of the contradictions we had noted in our ethnographic research: cleaning gets you dirty, and cleaning surfaces that are effective because they grab dirt are themselves difficult to clean. Identifying and resolving these contradictions meant we could give consumers a cleaning choice that didn't involve a tradeoff between a clean home and clean clothes and the company R&D organization would no longer have to make a tradeoff between materials that are sticky to dirt and materials that are easy to clean. However, the first concept tests did not justify our confidence. When a small group of women were shown the new idea in a typical written concept form, they were not enthusiastic. They did not believe the FastClean tool would clean as well as the so- lutions they were currently using; they did not want to buy yet another disposable product; and they expressed concern for the environmental impact of disposable products.

The lesson from this experience was clear: to understand whether or not a really innovative idea is going to succeed, you have to test the experience, not just show someone a piece of paper. We had to develop the idea further to conceptu- alize the customer experience with it. We began by exploring the application of the idea to wet cleaning, dry cleaning, and even a cleaning mitt. Next, Jack Gundlach on the Continuum team designed and fabricated a crude working prototype for wet cleaning a kitchen floor, which we tested with consumers (West 2003). Once potential customers were able to use the product, they fell in love with it. They could see that it did clean the floor effectively and it was fun to use, and they felt the benefit was worth the cost of using a disposable product.

We have learned that to be successful, any new product has to delight the consumer and it must actually work; more than anything, for a company to move forward with the idea, there has to be data to prove that it works. So we hired an undergraduate intern from the mechanical engineering pro- gram at MIT, Naomi Korn, to spend her summer making a test floor dirty with a carefully calibrated recipe that included sugar, skin flakes from a podiatrist, and other interesting in- gredients, and then cleaning it with various prototypes. The results were compelling: with the right design of disposable cleaning sheet, FastClean cleaned a floor better than any mop. And thanks to Naomi, we had the data to prove it.

By now, it was the summer of 1995. We had a great idea for a new way to clean floors, and we had consumer and technical data to show that it was better than any other solu- tion on the market-what could go wrong? When we looked into patenting our idea we learned that many aspects of what we had come up with had been invented before. In Japan, Unicharm, a direct competitor of P&G, had developed a line of floor dusters that looked quite similar to what we had just tested. I remember Craig phoning me to ask why we had not run a patent search before developing this new idea. I ex- plained that it is difficult to search for a solution that, even though it now seemed inevitable, was completely unex- pected at the beginning of the project. It was an awkward and honest conversation.

It took several years for P&G to develop what we now know as the Swiffer franchise-licensing technology from Unicharm, developing the product, creating the brand and advertising campaign, and building distribution. In 1999, the Swiffer Duster was launched and in 2001, the Swiffer WetJet. Swiffer is not just a new product that helps time-stressed people clean their homes better-it's also a new business model that builds on P&G's strengths in technology develop- ment, brand building, and channel management. It is now one of the most successful new brands at P&G with sales of over $1 billion a year.

This idea was based on consumer understanding, but no consumer specifically asked for it. We had to empathize with consumers to understand their unarticulated needs and then envision a solution for them. The patent on the first proto- type Continuum made is the oldest patent P&G is claiming in the Swiffer franchise.

Of course, there are other versions of the creation of Swiffer, which are equally true.

The Business Leaders' story Where the design researcher's story focuses on product in- novation, the business leader's story emphasizes the business decisions and management acumen that led to the product's success, including the decision to license the original Swiffer Duster from Unicharm and share production and even mar- keting communication with them and the many manage- ment choices that went into the orchestration of a new brand (Lafley and Charan 2008). Choosing to license rather than invent was a breakthrough tactical decision; from this per- spective, Swiffer became a key proof point for P&G's broader strategic move to search globally for better ways to serve con- sumers, reaching outside the organization when solutions already exist rather than limiting the organization to invent- ing its own solutions.

The Product Designer's Story The product designer's story is about the form and function of the product. The industrial design of Swiffer was executed by a team of designers in P&G's Corporate New Ventures group, with the help of Joss Design. Swiffer is designed to fit in a box that fits conveniently on store shelves; it doesn't need the taller spaces required by conventional mops and brooms. This makes it easier to merchandise in a wider range of stores. It is easy to assemble, and the handle just feels right as you navigate around your room. There are fan websites devoted to Swiffer because it is so much fun to use.

The Naming Company's Story The Swiffer would not be the Swiffer without its name. In the first consumer tests, we used the placeholder name Fast- Clean. This label was sufficient for prototyping, but it wouldn't work for marketing-it was too prosaic, not own- able, not a future verb, and certainly not loveable. The nam- ing firm, Lexcon, created the name Swiffer, which beautifully evokes the speed and ease of using the product, providing a brilliant shortcut to the brand promise (Blair 2011). Lexcon can certainly say that they invented the Swiffer, because without its name it would not be the same product.

The Lead User Story The stories of the business leader, the product designer, and the naming company follow the design researcher story. However, there is another story I sometimes tell. While I was working on the ethnographic research for Swiffer, I moved to a new house. The kitchen was unfamiliar and, as it turned out, I didn't know how to turn off the stove. One night, shortly after moving, we woke up to the squeal of the smoke detectors and the smell of smoke. I rushed downstairs to find that I had left the stove on, the plastic handle of the kettle had caught fire, and flames were licking at the underside of our kitchen cabinets. Noticing that the smoke detector was in my hand-I must have ripped it out of the ceiling in my panic-I used it to bat the burning kettle into the sink and put out the flames. Disaster had been averted, but when we surveyed the damage the next morning we saw that the house had been filled with smoke from the burning plastic and now every surface was covered with a thin film of black soot. We tried washing the film off, but that only seemed to make the mess worse. In desperation we phoned our insur- ance company, which knew exactly what to do. The com- pany sent over a team of burly guys armed with a box of thin disposable sheets of a non-woven polymer that, when rubbed across the walls, grabbed the dirt, leaving the walls clean. The problem of how to clean a surface had already been solved for the extreme case of removing plastic soot from walls; the basic technology had existed for years. This is an elegant ex- ample of lead-user innovation (von Hippel 1988), in which a problem is first solved by or for users with extreme needs and is then adapted to less extreme problems for more people. By then our team had already developed the idea of a diaper wipe on a stick, so in our creative exuberance we paid little attention to this existing technology. Nonetheless, it is clear that the technologies for Swiffer had existed for years. All that was needed was for a company to see that people would want to use the same essential ideas for cleaning the floors in their homes.

Conclusion Each of these actors in the chain of innovation played a vital role in making the Swiffer innovation happen, each was es- sential, and each can claim some credit as the inventors of Swiffer. Two other companies, Clorox and S. C. Johnson, also launched similar product lines at around the same time. Clearly, Swiffer was an innovation that wanted to happen.

And then we recognized the second contradiction: the better a mop was at grabbing dirt off the floor, the more difficult it was to clean the mop itself.

To understand whether or not a really innovative idea is going to succeed, you have to test the experience, not just show someone a piece of paper.

The product designer's story is about the form and function of the product.

1 Rashomon (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa, was based on the Japanese short story "Rashomon," written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and published in 1915.

References Blair, E. 2011. With billions at stake, firms play name that mop. The Message Makers: Inside PR and Advertising. NPR, May 13. http://www.npr.org/2011/05/13/136024080/with-billions- at-stake-firms-play-name-that-mop Kelly, K. 2008. Simultaneous invention. [Blog post, May 9.] The Technium. http://kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/05/ simultaneous_in.php Lafley, A. G., and Charan, R. 2008. Game Changer. New York: Crown Business.

Merton, R. K. 1961. Singletons and multiples in scientific dis- covery: A chapter in the sociology of science. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105: 470-486.

Von Hippel, E. 1988. The Sources of Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

West, H. 2003. A case study in ethnography: Innovations for the Swiffer and Swiffer WetJet from P&G. Presentation given at the Institute for International Research conference, July 14. New York, NY.

Harry West leads innovation by helping companies see what people will want in the future and working with them to make that future real. With P&G, he led the team that created Swiffer, with BBVA, their Customer Cen- tric Bank, and with CGAP and HBL, the group that rethought how aid is distributed to the poorest women in Pakistan. Harry was on the faculty of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT from 1986 to 1994 and worked at the design and innovation consultancy Continuum from 1994 to 2013. He is now Senior Partner at Prophet, the global growth strategy con- sultancy. hwest@prophet.com DOI: 10.5437/08956308X5703008 (c) 2014 Industrial Research Institute, Inc

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