Building Company Focuses on Foundations of Innovation

By Michelle Grainger

The companies CIMS works with are committed to innovation. That’s no surprise. That holds true for a company whose industry—the home-building trade—isn’t exactly known for making innovation headlines. Ply Gem Industries stands out. It even has a dedicated innovation position in Lee Clark-Sellers, a former longtime Nortel executive who serves as the company’s Innovation Officer and is also a CIMS Industrial Fellow.

Lee Clark-Sellers

Lee Clark-Sellers

Lee recently talked about her company’s innovation culture including its new, idea-to-market initiative that has already released a product. An N.C. State alumna, Lee spoke at a “Wolfpack Your Lunch” event sponsored by N.C. State Executive Education the Poole College of Management. Below are highlights of her talk and our follow-up chat.

On Ply-Gem’s status in the industry: Based in Cary, N.C., Ply Gem Industries produces home exterior building products in more than 20 categories, including shutters, siding, doors, roofing tiles, and manufactured stone. It’s the industry leader, with $1.7 billion in sales in 2013, 8,700 employees in the U.S. and Canada and 29 plants across North America.

On Ply-Gem’s innovation commitment: The company’s CEO, Gary Robinette, hired Lee to be its first Innovation Officer in 2011. Since then, Lee has implemented multiple innovation-related programs and initiatives, including working with CIMS on several projects. Students in Poole College’s Jenkins MBA program, who often partner with CIMS, provided valuable research assistance, Lee says. Over time, the company’s focus has expanded. “We created an innovation portal that evolved into open innovation,” Lee explains. “Almost on a weekly basis, I’m talking to outside partners.”

On the company’s latest innovation initiative: Lee helped launch Foundation Labs about a year ago. The goal of the labs, which are less like conventional R&D labs and more like loosely organized start-up teams, is to streamline the three-step process that leads to transformational innovation: Identify & Qualify an Opportunity, Incubate, and Accelerate/Launch, according to Lee. Foundation Labs free employees from the structured work of most business units, giving them the time, space, budget and access to outside expertise that isn’t part of their usual job description.

The way Lee describes it, business units are hierarchical by nature, and they’re focused on products, product enhancements, and continuous improvement with a 1-2 year horizon, on using current knowledge, operating within a fixed budget and timeframe and with an emphasis on employee safety and product quality. The Foundation Labs concept emphasizes new product/market creation, strategic external relationships, learning, experimenting, and risk-taking. Its horizon is two or more years and it takes a broad approach, valuing experimentation, entrepreneur expertise, external research and collaboration, strategic advances, and creating a next-gen portfolio.

Lee stressed the importance of looking beyond the company’s walls to develop an idea into a product. “Foundation Labs allow us to bring in outside expertise; for instance, we might not have someone with expertise in a specific materials science.”

A materials science effort turned out to be Foundation Labs’ first success story. Just recently, Ply-Gem rolled out a new engineered slate roofing shingle made from a recycled co-mingled polymer. The company didn’t have experience in this specific formulation, but Foundation Labs team members came across an interesting concept, saw its potential application, bought the license to it and further developed it, Lee explained.

On how Foundation Labs are staffed: Staff interest is high, Lee notes. “There’s a lot of desire to be part of it,” she says. “Our challenge is to make it inclusive and collaborative.” Team members rotate in and out from business units across the company depending on expertise, timing, etc. “It’s very dynamic,” she notes. “In order to incubate an idea, you have to have just the right skills. I’d rather use the staffing model, ‘We get the right people at the right time.’”

On support from the top: “A lot of this was his inspiration,” Lee notes of Robinette. “He wanted to see the company move in an innovative way. He’s willing to take a leap of faith.”

Management support was a common theme when Wolfpack Your Lunch guests had an opportunity to ask Lee questions. Several of them wanted to know: How do you prevent your team from getting discouraged if they get shot down by exec management? How do you get an idea to move forward?

(This is such a common, critical problem. That’s why at CIMS, we work with sponsor champions to ensure that they have received buy-in from their company’s key management before embarking on any assessment or training project.)

On what’s ahead for Foundation Labs: Lee says one measure of its success will be whether teams can generate $10 million in business creation every two years. The outputs are encouraging. “Several teams are working with prototypes,” she notes.

Have a question for Lee Clark-Sellers or me? Drop us a line!

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