"Don’t focus so much on your technology. Pay more attention to your customer’s problem.” “Next time I want to see more progress on the business model.” “Why is your solution better than the one I can already get on the market?” Comments like these, which make one think of the TV show “The Dragons’ Den,” are typical at a Körber event that is held monthly in the film theater on a start-up campus in Berlin. Here, highly motivated pioneering thinkers present their ideas on a brightly lit stage. The jury asks tough questions and reaches a judgment: Should the project continue or not?
But this is where the similarities with the TV show, which features would-be company founders, come to an end. At Körber’s Stage Gate Meetings, the tone is objective, the feedback is well-qualified, and the audience represents concentrated expertise. Other Körber locations are connected via livestream; anyone who has the time can watch. Some of the observers in the hall or in the network have participated in these projects, while others are curious or want to ask questions that will help the teams refine their ideas swiftly and with a focus on the customer. The presenters who pass will be permitted to move towards their next Stage Gate — that is, the next milestone in the innovation process at Körber Digital.
The ideas that are presented might deal with real-time simulations for warehouse management. Or with augmented-reality support for technicians who are converting assembly lines. Or machine learning systems for the smooth supply of spare parts.
The Stage Gate Meetings, which Körber Digital holds once a month together with the Group’s other Business Areas, are one of the many pacemakers of the digital innovation process, says Thomas Zedler, Vice President Operations at Körber Digital. “Here at Körber we work differently from the ways that are customary at industrial groups. We support ideas that are based on practical operations by subjecting them to a quick and precisely timed process that leads to prototypes in just a few months.”
Of course not every idea is successful. Every idea has to prove itself to the jury again and again in order to pass the Stage Gates, and there are six of them in total. An idea needs to pass through these Stage Gates in order to continue receiving resources, a budget, personnel, time, and technical support from the Körber Digital team or advice from other expert teams in the Group.
lAccepting the jury’s criticisms and using them to decide on the team’s next actions is a learning process.r
Thomas Zedler, Vice President Operations Körber Digital
Passing the first three Stage Gates means going from the idea to a concrete concept and then to an initial practicable version for test customers — the minimum viable product (MVP). Each of these Stage Gates poses tough requirements. “Of course this is an unfamiliar situation for many colleagues,” says Zedler. Accepting the questions and the jury’s criticisms and using them to decide on the team’s next actions is a learning process. However, all participants agree that it’s important to receive exactly this kind of feedback. The questions coming from various perspectives help the project teams to focus again and again on the most important question of all: Are we doing this well enough for the benefit of our customers?
“It’s not always easy to keep this question in mind every moment,” Zedler says. Especially when it’s a matter of the latest technological trends. “People very quickly get enthusiastic about them, and they say, ‘We have to do something with augmented-reality. What would be a possible application?’ By contrast, we say, ‘Our customer has a problem. How can we solve it?’ And at that point we’re not yet thinking of the technology at all.”
For example, some customers are facing the challenge of having to produce ever smaller batches of their products. As a result, they have to frequently retool their assembly lines, and every time they do that they lose lots of valuable time. “So we look at the problem together. Where should a solution be applied, what specific requirements do the people have for a certain machine, what frustrates them, and where are they losing time?” says Zedler. “Only then an idea can emerge — for example, ‘This could be very effectively supported by means of augmented-reality glasses.’ But there could also be a completely different approach to a solution.”
Cooperating closely with the customer from the very start, and not committing to a definite technology too early — these are two important basic principles of the digital innovation process. The third basic principle is transparency. Another function of the Stage Gate Meetings is to make the projects known within the Group. “That way we prevent situations in which departments or Business Areas are working on digital initiatives with similar business models without the knowledge of others in the Group,” says Kristin Hoffmann, a Business Development Coordinator at Körber Digital. “For every new idea, we always ask whether someone else within the Group is doing something similar. Can we rely on our existing knowledge? Can we create networks between teams?” One key to answer these questions is close cooperation between the Business Areas. Before each Stage Gate Meeting, the presentations are assessed cooperatively by colleagues responsible for digital advancement at Körber Digital.
“One of our most important tasks is to make the digital innovation process and the role played by the Stage Gate Meetings in this process better known within the Group,” says Hoffmann. “After all, we don’t want to specify what topics are important at the moment. Our colleagues in the Business Areas know that best, because they are in direct contact with our customers. That’s why we’re happy about every team that contributes an idea. That’s how we develop the best solutions for our customers.” And this is also why all Körber employees are invited to watch the pitches via the livestream. “That way people will realize that at Körber we don’t file good ideas in a box, and after that nobody hears about them ever again. At Körber, people can implement their ideas themselves.”