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Inside a Chief-Innovation Officer’s World with Ben Brenton, Snap-on-Tools

Wonder what a Chief Innovation Officer thinks about? Here’s a look. As a leading global innovator, manufacturer and marketer of tools, diagnostics and equipment solutions for professional users, Snap-on-Tools is constantly innovating under the direction of Chief Innovation Officer Ben Brenton. Ben holds a Ph.D in Food Sciences and Nutrition from the University of Massachusetts and was director of innovation for the Frito-Lay Convenience Foods division of PepsiCo before his tenure at Snap-On.

In 2009 he launched Innovation Works!, a physical center for innovation at Snap-on’s office in Kenosha Wisconsin. We sat down with him to talk tools, what’s happening at Innovation Works! and his arch from Microbiology to leading a tool-world giant’s innovation initiatives.

You helped create and launch a 15,000 square foot Innovation center for Snap-On, can you give us a flavor or what goes on there?

At Innovation Works we have created a culture of fearless innovation.  I visited innovation centers at a diverse group of companies from Boeing to Kraft to build Innovation Works.  At its core is customer-driven design.  Customers often visits the facility and collaborate with our associates to create new products and services.  We try and replicate the innovation process with a functioning garage space, a focus group facility, several rooms for ideation sessions, a 3-D prototype lab, a design lab, a fully outfitted franchisee van, a photography studio and assorted training and meeting rooms.  We also give out annual Innovation Awards recognizing individuals and teams for everything from identifying a key insight to launching a successful new line of products.

What do you think are the key ingredients to foster a culture of innovation?

You can’t force it on people, get people who are naturally inclined on board first, start off slowly and pick up speed and converts as you build success.

People who are open to risk can teach others to be as well.  Enhance these traits with reward, additional training and mentoring.  We try and focus on several key traits, the most important is being customer centric and fostering a high degree of empathy for those customers – walk a mile in your customer’s shoes.  Other traits include: comfort with risk taking, being a lifelong learner, being a solid story teller, having a willingness to get out and explore, and an ability to synthesize complicated information.  Ultimately we strive to create a learning agenda, to build insatiable curiosity.

What has most surprised you about putting your Ph.D in Food Sciences to work in the tool world?

Having moved from graduation work in molecular genetics, then to food science and now to tools – the process at the core of each has been surprisingly similar.   You need expertise in a particular field, a strong desire to learn, the ability to take risks and try new things.  You have to be flexible, take the long view and understand people’s needs.  Our product portfolio is so diverse there I do get to immerse myself in lots of different industries, although I do miss messing around at the lab bench a bit.

Where do you seek innovation inspiration?

I listen to a variety of podcasts and books about innovation, business, design and psychology on tape, often finishing 3-4 books each month.  I get out into different environments, spend time with end users who are passionate about what they do, you can’t help but let that rub off on you.

Has innovation always been a key driver for Snap-on?  How has the role of innovation changed overtime?

Beginning with Joe Johnson’s invention, ten sockets that would “snap on” to five interchangeable handles in 1920, Snap-On was founded on innovation.  The growth of automobiles and with it auto repair, along with the 1929 depression profoundly changed the role of innovation for us.  Snap-On was one of the first to use financing as a shape-shifting force in tools. Blue collar workers needed tools to work, we extended financing to them so they could get back on their feet.  Today, software is a large part of our core business, everything from shop management to electronic diagnostics.

What hasn’t changed is the customer connection, the customer is at the center of everything we do around innovation.  We bring our software developers into the workshops, so they can see first hand how their product is being used and what obstacles it faces in the real world to run efficiently.

How have your customer needs changed the most?

Across our entire company there has been a huge increase in the need for software and electronics.  We define tools as anything you need to get the job done, which includes diagnostic equipment, electronics, power tools, shop equipment and software, in addition to traditional hand tools and tool storage.  

We only sell to professionals, people who make a living using our tools; and our breadth of customers and geography continues to expand enormously.  There are more and more cars and airplanes across globe, particularly in emerging markets.

Do you have a favorite piece of customer feedback over the years that you’ve put into action?

There are so many to choose from!  When Kraft purchased Nabisco we did a ton of household research to try and zero in on childhood obesity factors.  We found even in very calorie restricted households, cabinets full of Mountain Dew. When we asked what that was for we were told it was for special occasions, or a treat when they got home from school.  This sparked the idea that people didn’t fully understand what serving sizes were.  This led to the creation of 100-calorie packs of Oreos.

Another favorite from the tool world is the insight behind our Extreme Face Shields.  We set out to find out why Millennial auto technicians were not wearing safety equipment, turns out they were worried about injuries, but even more worried about looking good.  That resulted in a very simple design innovation to create a shield that looks like a skull.

You specialize in creating tools for viticulture, has the vineyard manager’s tool box changed or stayed the same?

Labor is probably the biggest issue, vineyard managers struggle to find skilled labor in key winemaking regions around the world.  As a result there is more automation in the vineyard, pneumatic and battery powered secateurs that help supplement existing workers. We create tools to minimize vine damage, reduce human injury and increase worker satisfaction to help keep those laborers in the vineyard.

Bahco’s ERGO™ tools put the user, the task and the environment at the innovative tool’s core.  How does each one contribute to the innovation process?

Our  ERGO™ tools are popular in the wine business in Western Europe and are beginning to be recognizes as the premier US.  A lot of time and effort is put into thinking about the human interface – how the human interacts with the tool.  For example our one-handed secateurs can see 10-20,000 cuts in a single day – we look at different sized hands, right-handed vs. left handed models, etc.  We talk to our users and find out if they’re using it in freezing temperatures, under the summer sun and everything in between to come up with solutions for every situation to avoid repetitive use injuries and have the greatest efficiency.

Delegates at Harvest Summit will get to see and hear more about Snap-On’s Bahco Tool division.  Join them.

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