The Westinghouse Innovation Group George Westinghouse, considered by many as one of the world’s…
The Westinghouse Innovation Group
George Westinghouse, considered by many as one of the world’s leading inventor-engineers, founded Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1886 and eventually 59 other companies, receiving over 100 patents for his work.1 Westinghouse Electric Corporation established one of the nation’s first industrial research laboratories in 1886 with the invention of the transformer, which enabled the transmission of electricity over large distances by increasing the voltage of alternating current electricity.
The company had established a reputation for developing advanced technology products. Its Transmission and Distribution (T&D) business unit was a relatively small segment of the corporation’s product range and sales volume and was comprised of several product divisions. These divisions were fairly independent. They manufactured products for electric utilities and large industrial complexes, and each division addressed different (noncompeting) product lines within the same industries. The products ranged from the world’s largest power transformers, power circuit breakers, and electronic voltage regulators for large electrical generators all the way to the more mundane pole-mounted transformers and standard house meters.
In 1979, the Westinghouse T&D Business Unit (comprising all the divisions that built and marketed products for the T&D market segment) realized that its product offerings were rather mature and in serious need of upgrading. The president of the T&D Business Unit, in cooperation with the Westinghouse Headquarters technical staff, instituted and sponsored the T&D Innovation Group to foster innovation and creativity in its technical offerings. Its mission was to creatively apply new ideas to solve old problems, and more specifically, to inject a measure of high technology into its product line. Furthermore, through this group, it sought to “upgrade the competence” (that is, enhance the knowledge) of the technical staff at their home divisions. One senior engineer from each T&D division was selected to participate in this twelve-member group. In addition, the sponsoring manager from corporate headquarters, who arranged the meetings, suggested the agenda and provided guidance to the group and also served as the communication link to the T&D president and his staff. Each selected engineer would communicate directly with his own division general manager, bypassing the three or four hierarchical levels in the chain of command. This communication involved briefing the general manager on the proceedings of the group, as well as obtaining from him any problems that he would like to have addressed by the group.
The T&D Innovation Group meetings took place once per quarter and lasted for two-anda-half days (and three nights), typically in a resort hotel near one of the participating division headquarters or factories that served as the host for that meeting. This location ensured freedom from interruptions from the members’ daily responsibilities. While some of the problems to be addressed were defined by the business unit staff or the division general managers, others originated within the group itself. In the early meetings, most of the problems addressed were of a technical nature. As the group matured and the operating procedures became more streamlined, the discussions shifted to problems of an organizational nature. The group always addressed each problem using the technique of creative brainstorming (described below), until a consensus was reached on a set of recommendations for the individual presenting the problem, typically during the same two- or three-hour meeting.
The T&D Innovation Group continued to meet for three years before reorganizations, divestitures, promotions, transfers, retirements, and such took a toll on those individuals who had a vested interest in this concept. Nevertheless, in its relatively short existence, the group succeeded in generating a few dozen patent disclosures many of which later became valuable corporate patents. In addition, several products were upgraded as a direct result of the group’s work. Moreover, several recommendations were made to senior management, which were either implemented, or at the very least, seriously considered. Lastly, the T&D Innovation Group had some success in injecting advanced technology into the technical staff of the divisions.