What Successful Innovation Actually Looks Like

Following on a recent post, amid all of the calls for continual innovation to compete globally, it is occasionally useful to see a concrete example of what successful innovation looks like.  The Wall Street Journal recently profiled Milliken, one of the very few textile firms still based in South Carolina.  How have they managed this?

 What Milliken did was first try to hold back the flood of cheap imports—a strategy that chewed up management time and ultimately failed. But then it diversified rapidly out of traditional textiles and moved deeper into niche products that built off its knowledge of textiles and specialty chemicals. And it bore down on scientific research and manufacturing innovation.

Today, Milliken makes the fabric that reinforces duct tape, the additives that make refrigerator food containers clear and children’s art markers washable, the products that make mattresses fire resistant, countertops antimicrobial, windmills lighter, and combat gear protective.

Along the way it has amassed thousands of patents, focusing on specialty fabrics and chemicals, floor coverings and performance products. Milliken boasts that we come in contact with its many products almost 50 times a day. . . .

Up in the labs, Chris DeSoiza, the head of research, explains why. Milliken, he says, is able to nab graduates from the best schools because they can do deep science at the company. Walking down Milliken’s Innovators Hall of Fame, where employee names are posted alongside patents, Mr. DeSoiza says researchers can use 15% of their time to investigate whatever they like. Proven innovators get 50%.

The idea is to let researchers follow their curiosity to a marketable end. And if the boss doesn’t like your idea, there are other venues in the organization you can petition—and that have the power to greenlight your project. Every month, Milliken also brings in outside experts to share ideas and stir the pot.

On their website, Milliken refers to itself as a community of innovators.  In the WSJ story, DeSoiza puts it simply:  “culture is everything.”  The full story is here.

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