Structuring for innovation in a former government apparel business
Australian Defence Apparel has transformed itself in the past year and a half to being creativity and innovation-driven. Darren Swindells, general manager, strategic product and innovation, lets Samuel Tait in on some of the details of how the formerly government-owned business did it.
Samuel Tait: How have you structured teams to foster innovation at Australian Defence Apparel?
Darren Swindells: We implemented change about seven or eight months ago, breaking with the past management practice of specific product specialisation team by team. The method is largely inefficient anyway, but what’s worse, it silos individuals from growth through exposure to different product lines.
Each team is combined based on skill set and experience, normally working in groups of three to four per project – a senior designer, design assistant and materials technologist.
So external specialists that are engaged by ADA and the solutions arrived at always vary from team to team. Every time a team takes on a project they have the freedom to reevaluate what had worked previously and what didn’t. This is even down to the external suppliers they selected successfully or maybe not.
ST: How has this focus on design and innovation impacted the company?
DS: ADA started life as government organisation, the business is 103 years old. When it became privately owned in the 80s it was very much geared towards receiving orders off the back of a fax machine. It had been very much an operations-driven business. Yes of course supply chain is the lifeblood of any successful manufacturer but previously the operations model controlled every facet of product.
Over the last 12 to 18 months, we’ve turned that around, and it’s become much more a creative and technical business with operations as support.
We now leverage heavily in the fast product innovation space. This is our clear advantage in the market. Our resurgence and growth parallel the changes we have made to culture and processes, this is no coincidence in my opinion.
ST: How has this change impacted the way you lead teams at ADA and what results are you seeing?
DS: The message from our management and leadership team has been: ‘tell us what you need to get the best outcome’. We give senior designers and the design teams scope and support to create a creative and functional solution. We provide R&D full backing to source and innovate as readily and as often as they can, ensuring we get the best outcome for the business and the customer. We free up bureaucracy as and when needed for fast decisions.
We are winning business with ‘point of difference’ solutions. We are happy to let our competitors chase each other to the bottom with the cheapest price and the thinnest margins whilst all selling the same product.
ST: Can you describe the culture at ADA and how it supports innovation?
DS: This ties back to that point I made earlier, innovation being about risk and taking bets. The senior team members have become engendered with that concept. They know that, whilst they do the formal concept of approval, they know when they’re scoping up the project, “Hey, if we invest here, we’ll get this outcome.” That’s not a thought process that a committee has to make. An individual can work that out. This increases speed, and output, and enthusiasm, and the list goes on. If I said to one of our senior designers, “Would you invest that amount of money to try and find a solution?” if their answer is “Hell yes, I would.” then let’s go ahead and do it.
ST: Can you describe your process and operations when you execute?
DS: When executing innovation in a bespoke B2B apparel business the processes needs to be as aerobic as possible, especially within the tight timelines demanded by tenders when the product is often highly technical on a number of levels.
This is where the R&D team’s role in continually seeking innovation in technical fabrics, polymers and trims to build an innovation library of pre-validated options all with proven test results to relevant performance and protective standards. This library allows us to react quickly to commercial requirements in a detailed manner.
Whilst not a traditional stage/gate process, we do undertake health checks throughout all product development activities to assess suitability for inclusion in the innovation library. The library contains many items that have similar performance attributes, however they may have different price points, from varied sources and with different supply chain footprints.
This allows us to pitch flexibility on country of origin, multiple product characteristics and multiple price points that are all fit for use.
ST: How does the sales process impact innovation at ADA?
DS: Our sales process is heavily focused on relationships and it is these relationships with our customers that allow us to understand their operating environment, requirements and priorities. This knowledge enables us to identify innovation opportunities and also anticipate future innovation projects that appeal to our broad customer base.
Our sales team interact regularly with both our design and R&D teams, including myself and this collaborative approach allows us to match garment and technological advancements to specific customer needs. It is not uncommon to further refine a new garment and product to suit alternate industries and user applications based on this sharing of knowledge between internal departments.
Often direct collaborative meetings with our customers that involve talking through design concepts and presenting garment prototypes make up the final stages of the innovation process. Speaking with potential end users of each innovation and often trialling garments in ‘real world’ operational environments ensures we have a product that is fit for purpose and is also commercial.
The sales process also provides a forum for customer initiated innovation. A customer will identify a need in their business for potential improvement and the sales, design and R&D teams again work collaboratively with the customer to find an innovative solution.
ST: Can you outline how you use your supply chain in a strategic sense to help deliver outcomes that support innovation?
DS: This is another challenge we’ve had to address in the reformation of the business in the last 12 months. Understanding that our suppliers should be viewed strategic partners. We look for alignment in ethics, standards and business vision.
ADA has a very long history but our suppliers from five years ago, or even two years ago, may no longer be strategically relevant for our business. You’ve always got to apply scrutiny to whether your partnerships are viable, and whether they’re focused, and that you’ve both got the same vision.
Finally, having suppliers that deliver consistency and quality is ideal. However the perfect supplier is one that is flexible enough to provide tailored solutions that deliver us with a commercial advantage.
ST: What advice would you give to people looking to succeed with their own innovation projects?
DS: I think innovation should be a holistic business approach. It’s not just one small team with a title that is squirreled into the backyard working on a single project. It’s a general daily effort on all things.
Secondly it’s about no space for egos; egos just create roadblocks. There is no such thing as a single person who has all the right ideas (although you’d be surprised how many people in the industry still think that). Everyone being transparent and open to new ideas, everyone contributing. Then and only then will innovation get into every corner of your business.
The last one is to ensure companies don’t see innovation as a high risk or an open cheque book. The price of innovation only needs to be as big as the bet you’re wanting to place. In my world that could be simply the cost of a fabric that gives us competitive advantage in a tender rather than getting something off the shelf.
In case you missed it, part one of Samuel Tait’s interview with Darren Swindells, general manager, strategic product and innovation at Australian Defence Apparel is here. Swindells gave an overview of innovation within the apparel industry, how they collaborate with customers, external specialists and provided insight on how they are tackling challenges in re-engineering a government business focused on operational efficiency to a cutting edge textiles and fabric technology manufacturer developing its own intellectual property.