Meet the Whirlwind of Whirlpool

Over a decade ago, Chuck Jones was hired to take over design and development at the appliance giant. Big changes followed

Whirlpool's acquisition of rival appliance maker Maytag, completed in late March, offers a good opportunity to see how far the appliance giant has come. In 1995, my recruiting firm was hired by Whirlpool (WHR) to fill a position that combined usability and advanced product concept. We called Chuck Jones, then a group manager at Xerox (XRX) responsible for both strategy and product development.

He said, "No." He wasn't certain it was a good career move to join what he thought was a classic, conservative Midwestern company. Nonetheless, we convinced him to at least go to the interview.

Chuck was a design and product-development leader with 14 years of experience and a strong background in human-factors engineering and product planning. He had gone through the management training offered to the top 1% of Xerox employees, and had recently finished an 18-month assignment managing an ID/HI (industrial design/human interface) advanced global product development function.


  At the Whirlpool interview, Chairman and CEO David Whitwam told Chuck the company was at a fork in the road. He had put the company on a brand-building path and wanted to break the stalemate that characterized the appliance industry. Every time Whirlpool came up with a new feature, a competitor would copy it.

In such an environment, Whirlpool could chose to be the low-cost producer and build its value proposition on offering products for "x amount" less than the next guy. Or it could build a compelling case around why their portfolio of brands is different, and how they pack in more innovation and more consumer appeal than the competition. In essence, the mission was to "be better, different, and worth it."

Chuck enthusiastically accepted an offer and joined a team developing a strategy to bring together the fragmented and regional design organizations and connecting them with usability. After a year, they decided to make a single integrated corporate global design and usability function. In another year, it was operating, and Chuck had been chosen to lead it.


  I don't think it occurs to most design students that one day they may be participating in or helping to manage the change of an entire organization. When Chuck joined Whirlpool, they had about 60,000 people spread across four regions. He needed a structured way to begin to communicate things these people never heard before, such as: Why design matters, how it links to the brand strategy, and how you need to engage with the design organization differently from before.

Chuck read a lot about organizational design and worked with internal experts at Whirlpool to develop a change-management model that laid out a series of steps required to transform the company's design process. Transforming organizations takes time, and each organization is different. The plan was developed during an April, 1998, executive committee meeting. Adoption was the goal for January, 2000, and by December, 2003, the executive team wanted institutionalization.

To start the process of change, Chuck went on the road to meet two key constituencies. He spent 1999-2000 getting one of them -- the brand marketing organization -- up the change-management curve. In mid-2000, he started to connect with the other group -- engineering and manufacturing. He spent lots of time on airplanes as he built the global brand marketing organization and built connections between it and the global design studio.


  In his presentations he laid it out: Here's what we do in global consumer design, here's what we don't do. Here are ways to engage with the department to maximize its talent, skill, and contributions. Here are some benchmarks of companies doing this right and companies that have it wrong.

Between mid-2000 to mid-2003, the engineering and manufacturing side of the organization was moving up the change-management curve. Chuck has lost count of how many times someone raised a hand and asked: "Why do we need this? We've been around for 90-plus years and we've never had a big push for design before."

Chuck complemented his focused and dedicated presentations with a broader-reaching intranet site where people could access a mission statement, the global consumer design organization, a department directory with the contact information, a photo, and the hobbies of each designer, along with the current list of active projects and key processes that are used. Now Whirlpool employees can quickly learn anything they need to know about global consumer design.


  Because of the Whirlpool leaders' commitment to change, the company has made the shift from being a player in what's often described as a commodity industry to being a leading brand-focused consumer-products company. This is unique in the 95-year history of the company. It leads in design and usability. It has embarked on a brand strategy, and has put the customer at the center of its product-development efforts.

Chuck's title is now corporate vice-president, global product design, consumer understanding & planning. He has a multidisciplinary staff of more than 100 in four regions. He incorporates industrial design, human factors/usability, anthropology, graphics, model-making, and user interface and interaction design. There's a usability and anthropology group in every area in which Whirlpool does business. Designers leverage the contextual usage information developed in these groups before they start any ideation or concept development.

What can we learn from the transformation journey Chuck Jones has helped to lead at Whirlpool? First, start with a clear transformation strategy and enlist the help of transformation experts around you. Second, adapt your communication style and tools as your transformation plan unfolds. And finally, be relentless and resilient about driving the transformation you seek.

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