Interview with Steffen Erath

From Playtime to Market Maturity: Innovation Management at Hansgrohe

They’ve been sitting here for hours: sketching, drawing, and sticking yellow notes on the walls. The entire room is covered in them. Steffen Erath empties the box of Lego, connects some of the colorful bricks together, and presents his work to the group. “The prototype could look like this.” Grinning, nodding. They come up with one idea after another. The group is in the zone. This is what innovation management looks like in practice at Hansgrohe.

Team of the Hansgrohe think tank.
What does the bathroom of the future look like? Steffen Erath (on the left) and his team find that out every day anew.

Innovative Company: “For Hansgrohe, Standing Still Means Going Backwards.”

Steffen Erath is Head of Innovation. What does the bathroom of the future look like? Erath and his team find that out every day anew. In the interview he explains what innovation means in the Hansgrohe Group:

Steffen Erath, is a playful atmosphere everything when it comes to developing product ideas and future concepts?

Steffen Erath (S.E.): We really do want our innovation teams to be able to get in the zone, which is something we’re all familiar with from childhood: we were so focused on something that we were able to block everything else out. This focus is extremely effective in the business world. Multitasking is often the aim these days. According to new scientific findings (compare with Dr. Volk Busch, “Brain2B”), the modern-day office employee is able to work for 10.5 minutes on average without interruption. This means, most of the people are interrupted several times a day while they work. That can’t possibly be efficient.

So you close yourselves off – far from the hectic of smartphones – and ponder over new topics. What kind of techniques and methods do you use?

S.E.: We often work in “sprint mode,” which means an interdisciplinary team concentrates on a concrete issue for days. Third parties, customers or our design partners from Phoenix Design are often involved.

Even when it’s an issue of digital business models, we still use analog tools: scribbles and Post-its are the easiest. We quickly visualize the initial solutions with prototypes, which creates a better understanding. An innovation facilitator coaches the group, guiding us along with methods. And the most important tool is the “Time Timer.” After all, even when you’re in the zone, a time limit helps you to concentrate on what’s important. The method toolbox consists of all agile working methods such as lean start-up, design thinking, and scrum.

How helpful is this process optimization in quickly transforming good ideas into market-ready products?

S.E.: We have a clearly defined innovation process that’s inspired by the working methods of start-ups, meaning the teams enjoy a great deal of freedom when it comes to developing concepts. This innovative business model calls for fixed milestone meetings every three months, at which time the teams present their progress. Much like an investor, an “InnovationBoard” decides which concepts we should continue to pursue and which we should terminate.

How long does an innovation cycle last on average at Hansgrohe?

S.E.: Ideally, the process takes three months, from the initial idea to the first prototype. And then another six months to the first market test. Let’s say that would be the optimal process without iteration loops. In other words, if there aren’t any complications along the way. But in reality, we want there to be complications, as they help us to improve the solution one piece at a time. This can increase the development time, but also the likelihood of success.

What percentage of the overall range do new products account for?

S.E.: Our vitality index is approximately 30 percent. So we generate a third of our sales with products that are less than three years old.

Just how important are innovations for the Hansgrohe Group? Couldn’t an internationally established company simply live off its long-selling products and good inventions of recent decades?

S.E.: For Hansgrohe, standing still means going backwards. The company would like to continue growing faster than the market in the future. We now see that times are changing across all industries. Companies used to be able to achieve above-average growth with gradual improvements – meaning with incremental innovations. But in the future only radical leaps and bounds will lead to new levels of success.

However, visionary concepts wouldn’t work without the profitable core area of business either. The future builds on tradition. At Hansgrohe we need both: a) employees such as those in innovation management who constantly question the status quo and look for new growth opportunities beyond the core area of business, and b) employees who optimize what’s already there. One doesn’t work without the other.

Hansgrohe Innovations at the Innolab: Epicenter of Black Forest Ingenuity

Creativity needs to flow – but it doesn’t necessarily do that in an open-plan office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In order to test new methods in product development, Hansgrohe established the Innolab pilot project in 2017: a think tank located outside of the company headquarters, but still in the heart of the Black Forest.

The environment is experimental and the rooms resemble a creativity workshop. Here in Schramberg on the premises of the legendary watch and clock manufacturer Junghans, the developers enjoy the freedom to think outside the box. The Innolab is now brimming over with visionary future ideas inspired by traditional ingenuity. The effort has paid off: the digital hansgrohe products were launched here – sophisticated and multisensory ranges that are heralding a new era of showering.
“We practice innovation management at Hansgrohe in order to improve the quality of life of each individual. In other words, we focus on individuals and their needs in our daily work.”
Steffen Erath, Head of Innovation & Sustainability, Hansgrohe SE
Steffen Erath.

Head of Innovation: a Job at Hansgrohe

Unconventional Thinkers with Good Instincts

Outstanding ideas from the Hansgrohe company can be found in millions of bathrooms and kitchens around the world. Some are the result of a flash of inspiration, while many others come from structured, scientific work. Steffen Erath is a qualified industrial engineer and has been with the company since his BA course, initially as a product manager. He says the best thing about his job at Hansgrohe is the magic of innovation.
Focus: Innovation
New Developments
Shower Startup From the Black Forest
Founder Hans Grohe.