Hagen Gutekunst on the creative corporate climate, ideas islands and amazing scores at darts
For Hagen Gutekunst, Managing Director of Gutekunst Formfedern GmbH, a creative climate of innovation starts with the seating layout. The family business leader has deliberately avoided having an executive floor, so ideas flow in and out of the open-plan office. His guiding principle: "Nothing is so far-fetched that we don't test it for feasibility."
You place great value on openness in your organisation …
Absolutely, we believe cross-hierarchical and cross-divisional communication is paramount. So I have my desk in the middle of the open-plan office. The developers, engineers, quality managers and work preparation managers all sit together here. So I am very close to the development, I always know if there's a problem somewhere and am here for anyone to talk to. It allows us to respond quickly, that is our strength.
Your company received the 'Top Innovator' award for the 11th time in 2017. How do you manage to encourage such a lively climate of innovation?
An open-door culture is crucial, because it allows us to involve our managers in processes of innovation at all times. As well as open communication, team work and cross-divisional initiatives are a key part of our success. We also very consciously foster our employees' inventiveness, for example with a transparent rewards system for creative ideas.
How do you reward your employees' ideas?
All the suggestions are collated on the intranet for every member of staff to see, and rate using a points system. Even the smallest of ideas can be entered in the ideas management system. Whoever had the idea can exchange the points it earns for cash or other rewards. There are also special bonuses for particular performance. For example, the idea of a spring to give prosthetics greater flexibility.
How else do you tap into your employees' creative potential?
We have created 'ideas islands' for our production staff: tables where people from different departments can meet and talk about their ideas. There is also an 'ideas room' that is open to all employees without notice. At break times, the table football and darts board are popular. I am truly astonished how often exciting ideas emerge from this totally relaxed atmosphere, or how problems are tackled.
You employ ideas managers in your company …
Yes, and they are responsible for encouraging the creative potential across all departments. They ensure that suggestions and proposed improvements from employees with no PC access flow into the innovation process. There are also what we call 'innovation postcards' on display throughout the whole company. These make sure we don't miss a single idea, however mad it seems.
What happens with ideas that haven't yet been fully developed?
Our innovation circle provides fast feedback to employees – especially if an idea doesn't quite hit the mark yet. It means the idea doesn't end up in the waste bin. More importantly, it gives everyone the chance to revise and resubmit their idea. Concepts that can be implemented immediately benefit from the short pathways in our medium-sized organisation.
“I am amazed how often exciting ideas days emerge over a game of darts at break times.”
Hagen Gutekunst on the magic of a game of darts or table football
We hear that sharing information is especially important to you.
Yes, we can only innovate together if everyone is happy to share their knowledge with everyone else – secrecy doesn't help us to move forward. Everyone is free to get actively involved at any stage of an ongoing project, or contribute new aspects. It's important that they're not afraid of failure. So we never apportion blame if something doesn't work out. Otherwise, the same person would never submit an idea again.
What part does the senior management play in creating an overall climate of innovation?
Our managers hold their own regular innovation days – for them and for external partners. We also support new developments with workshops and special ideas teams. Social responsibility is also high on our agenda. That includes supporting our female staff and their offspring with flexible working hours, or the opportunity to work from home. Providing further training for our older employees is also close to our hearts.
What are you doing to further strengthen your market position?
To systematically strengthen our own market position, we are seeking a direct tie to our customers. We have established our own online expert forums where we answer any questions people may have about the development, construction and use of all types of metal spring. In addition to our website, the company is also on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. We are also well networked in the analogue world: as part of the customer days which we arrange on a regular basis, we take customers on a tour of the factory and explain the production process to them. For many of our customers, it's the first time they realize what options we can offer them. This also generates new orders.
In which overseas markets do you see growth potential?
Definitely in Asia, especially in China. There is huge demand for leading-edge technology there. For us, it's a hugely attractive market for the future.
Where do you think the biggest challenges will lie in the future?
The biggest challenge will certainly be the skills shortage that is already causing big problems here in Germany, and the shortage will only get worse over the next 10 to 20 years. So it will be essential to attract skills from abroad, or collaborate with international partners.
“Innovative thinking is so important for us because our customers always expect the best solution from us.”