Small Changes Make a Difference: Stories From Pampers, Method and SC Johnson

In the world of innovation, small changes don't get the credit they deserve. Big changes seem more exciting and somehow more important. But good innovation doesn't have to be large because it is, no matter what the dimensions, about impact.
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In the world of innovation, small changes don't get the credit they deserve. Big changes seem more exciting and somehow more important. But good innovation doesn't have to be large because it is, no matter what the dimensions, about impact. The right small change can create meaningful impact far beyond its size.

In categories with tight constraints, such as fast-moving consumer goods, a small change is sometimes the best way best way to make a big difference. Often small changes are pursued for efficiency reasons, but they can also make a big difference in terms of consumer experience and environmental impact. Taking a look at the recent release of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices Review, perhaps some of the personal products companies, one of the top 3 least improved categories, can find a small change that will help it break the mold.

Here are some questions to ask when you start wondering if you're pursuing a big innovation in a small package... or just adding another blade to the razor.

1) Are You Focused on the Right Benefit?

Throughout much of the 90s, Pampers was a No. 2 brand in the seemingly commoditized world of diapers. They had expensive machines pumping out masses of diapers per second and the cost of stopping production to make a change to the process would have been enormous. Pampers could effectively only make small changes. To do so, they needed to understand the emotional physics of diapers.

So our team at Continuum talked to moms and watched them with their babies. One thing quickly became clear: babies don't sit still during diaper changes. A diaper that was designed to capture and contain nearly 100 percent when correctly applied became less good at its job as a mom struggled to keep the diaper on straight and fasten tabs on a squirming baby in the middle of the night.

Pampers had also been focusing on the wrong benefits. Yes, containment mattered. But what really mattered was helping babies stay comfortable, sleep better, stay healthier and ultimately grow and thrive. That was what moms cared about.

Pampers needed to help moms help their babies develop. And they didn't need a whole new manufacturing line to accomplish it. A simple graphic placed at the front center of the diaper helped parents, changing their little ones in the dark, aim for a better fit and know if they had the diaper on correctly or not. Softer-sounding tabs allowed for quieter diaper changes. Pampers changed their line-logic to focus less on the size or age of the baby and more on the developmental stage, highlighting the unique diaper needs of babies at different stages, all relatively simple changes that had the much more powerful effect of resonating with moms aspirations and values.

In the end, these small changes steered Pampers to the leadership position.

2) Is This Just the Easy Way Out?

One of my favorite small changes is Method's ocean plastic bottle. The bottle itself only contains 10 percent plastic recovered from the ocean, and in that way feels small. But Method is clear in their message. They know they can only make a tiny difference in removing plastic from the ocean's ecosystem, but they seek to have a large impact on awareness.

What's great about this innovation is the clear intent and imagination that went into it. There was no off-the-shelf ocean plastic for Method to buy. In fact, when they first started exploring the idea, there was no supply chain at all. There was just an idea and a compelling reason to pursue it. Method had to partner with local beach cleanup groups and non-profits to collect the plastic. Then they had to work with a partner, Envision Plastics, who was willing to experiment with turning ocean plastic into a useable product.

Today the plastic is still only in use in one of the company's many product lines (their dish and hand soap). Just 1.5 years into the project, Method had recycled over a ton of plastic -- not much compared to the several million tons tons that are estimated to be floating around in the ocean. Yet, as a statement on what Method stands for, as a values-driven leader in innovation, the idea is a huge success.

3) What Will the Impact Be?

SC Johnson has long been dedicated to improving their environmental performance. Their recycled content Windex bottle is an improvement that, unless you religiously read corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, you might have missed. The bottle doesn't look any different from the others on the shelf, and unless you pay very close attention, you might never know about the recycled content. When looked at one bottle at a time, the innovation doesn't sound that exciting -- even from a sustainability perspective. Windex bottles are made from 50 percent post-consumer recycled plastic.

However, when you look at how many Windex bottles are sold annually, the savings begin to add up. In fact, the energy savings from using 50 percent PCR plastic in the 21 million bottles of Windex sold each year(1) is roughly 30 million kwh -- more than half the energy it takes to operate the Waxdale manufacturing facility (that makes Windex) for a year(2). And it keeps approximately 2 million pounds of virgin material out of landfills each year(3). That's right: the boring statistic on your Windex bottle indicates a small change, that multiplied over the millions of Windex bottles sold per year, adds up to make a big difference in our waste stream and our environment. This is a common benefit of small changes -- multiplied over millions of products, they can make a big impact.

1) From SCJ 2011 Sustainability report
2) Continuum math based on SCJ 2011 and 2012 Sustainability Reports
3) From SCJ 2011 Sustainability report


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