Cintas Shares 3 Lessons Learned on Innovating in a commodity Market

Cintas and Innovation

Whether you know the Cintas name or not, odds are you've used their products nearly every day in one capacity or another. Thanks to their uniforms and apparel products and facility services everything from mom and pop restaurants to massive factories have the things they need to run smoothly.

But, like every business, Cintas knows well that in commodity markets it's important to innovate. And now it was time to turn the focus to a product line we walk all over, mats.

"You might be thinking, 'What can you possibly do to innovate mats?' Well, it turns out, you can do quite a bit." says Innovation Engineering Blue Belt and Innovation Leader for the Mats Category, Rich Bing.

Rich leads a number of innovation and new product efforts, including mats. Recently they introduced a line of unique, patent pending mats as part of the High Performance Series that are well on target to meet or exceed their financial targets well ahead of schedule. We sat down and talked to Rich about what 3 key things led to their success:

  1. Be open to Borrowing Brilliance - looking for stimulus outside your category. Bryan Colpo, Innovation Engineering Black Belt at Cintas, ran a creative session for the team to generate ideas for new mats. The stimulus that sparked this idea came from tires. In particular, it was the tread of tires and the way it grips and channels debris and water that inspired the new Cintas Traffic mats. If they could use a similar design on mats, perhaps it could do the same thing. "In traditional brainstorming sessions prior to Innovation Engineering, we lacked a lot of meaningful unique ideas from the lack of enough stimulus particularly from other industries for inspiration." says Rich.
     
  2. Plan, Do, Study, Act cycles (aka: the scientific method) isn't just for Second Grade Science. The team didn't just write down the idea and immediately leap to execution mode, there was much to learn along the way to make sure it was going to work. Would the customer care about it? Would it actually work? Rich and his team did multiple tests, learned and adapted their idea based on the learning.

    Initially there was a collection of many more features and benefits. But after consumer testing, it was clear that too many features were muddying the waters. "We had some really great features, so rather than lose them we created a family of products that each had one killer feature and benefit." Once the team focused on the tire design for the Cintas Traffic mat, they found that the tread design itself made for great "kitchen logic." But they wanted to go further to underscore how truly unique it was.Rich shared, "To our customers, just seeing it made them believe that it would work. But we wanted to go one step further. We needed a strong point of proof to show customers that these were really effective mats. But we also didn't want to over complicate the message. So we did the torture test, having the mats tested by the National Floor Safety Institute. And it worked. The mats not only did well, but they also got the highest traction rating ever recorded by NFSI."
     
  3. Don't forget to Leverage Intellectual Property you already own. In an organization like Cintas, it's not hard to imagine they have ample intellectual property. But typically organizations use it for blocking competition, filing paperwork and then letting it collect dust. But not here. "We knew we had a patent pending technology that was great for improved mat performance, but it needed something more. The tire tread design was the final piece that made it work for this mat. And by using a patent pending technology, we started with something unique in the market and proprietary from the start."

They have a strong line-up of new mats slated to hit the market right after this one, all having been through rounds of experimentation and learning.

"Our Active Scraper mat is a great example of fast and cheap experimentation. We need to run a test to see if it would work. With a phone call to a university professor we got a great study completed and saved tens of thousands and months of work."

With a strong start already, the internal excitement for the products and the category is growing. "Mats has some real buzz." says Rich. "We're innovating in a category that most would think is impossible. But with stimulus, fast rounds of experimentation and being flexible and adaptive with our idea as we learn - we're winning in the marketplace. And that's exciting."

Note: Cintas used to Innovation Engineering system to help them create, communicate and commercialize their new product. If you'd like to learn more or become an Innovation Engineering Blue Belt like Rich, contact us!