Jaga: Creativity and open innovation with an anthropological flavor

 

Jaga is a radiator company located in Diepenbeek, Belgium. The company employs 450 people. Their production lines focus on ecologically and aesthetically attractive radiators and are divided in three groups: energy savers, eye catchers and top performers. The company targets the top segment of the market with products based on technology, design, and its philosophy of what Jaga calls “Cradle-to-Cradle” service. This vision, however, is the outcome of an evolution that matured over 30 years.

 

In 1962, the brothers Jan Kriekels, Sr. and Gaston Kriekels founded the central heating installation company Jaga. Jaga was a modest family business that operated mainly in the local construction market around Hasselt (Belgium). Due to excess demand in the late sixties, radiator companies could not deliver enough product to the expanding construction market. The two brothers saw the business opportunity and in 1970 started to produce one type of radiator that had three features: short delivery time, high warmth output, and a classic but inexpensive design. This simple strategy proved to be successful and the company expanded quickly in the following years.

 

The global energy crisis in 1974 was an initial setback for the company as high oil prices had a dramatic effect on the construction market and thus also the radiator market. Jaga’s revenues dropped by 25 percent. However, managers and engineers at Jaga moved quickly to explore new energy-saving products. They built three new products: the heat pump, the air dehumidifier, and the cool cell. This dramatic change in strategy represented a significant research and development (R&D) investment for the modest family company, but proved to be successful. Less than five years later, however, energy prices dropped to one-third of their high, and the idea of energy savings ended rather abruptly. This plunged Jaga into even deeper financial problems.

 

Jan Kriekels, Jr. succeeded his father as Jaga’s director in the 1990s. He assumed responsibility at a time when the company needed a drastic change to survive. Jan initiated a major change at Jaga in the 90s, moving innovation and creativity to the heart of Jaga’s corporate culture. He planned to make the company more creative and ensured that individuals would get more freedom inside the company to become intrapreneurs.

 

The company’s vision included the same elements as Jan Jr.’s view on the world and society. He had a background in anthropology and he talked about business using an anthropological and philosophical discourse. His view on the world could be summarized by five key values and each of these values could be represented by an archetype: Just as the five archetypes need to be represented in each society, he firmly believed that every company could only innovate and prosper through the interplay among these archetypes. The key values, the archetypes and their roles are summarized in Table 3-1. [i]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table‑1: The key values of Jan Kriekels in running a business

 

 

What are the implications for the management of an innovative company such as Jaga, according to Jan Kriekels, Jr.? First, archetypes represent people: It’s a people-centric vision on the creative economy. The crucial asset in innovation and creativity is not technology or ideas but the people that drive innovation. Second, the archetypes are quite different; they represent different parts of the society. A firm needs different skills to develop successful innovations.  Third, the creative economy is only possible through a combination of five archetypes. That implies that firms should not focus only on rationality and linear thinking, but rather combine rational thinking with creativity, dreams and emotions. This also implies that companies have to adopt open innovation as not all types of people will be working as employees in the company: Jan advocated working together with external partners such as artists, architects, researchers, engineers, and others. In the creative economy open innovation is the default.

 

Below, I describe three open innovation initiatives that Kriekels instigated based on this anthropological way of thinking. Two of them, the Experience Lab and the Product Days, are initiatives to create emotion and to inspire Jaga to cooperate with external partners. The Uchronia Project is an initiative that intends to bridge different worlds.  

 

To strengthen the Jaga brand name, the company launched the “Experience Strategy‟ in 2002. The first step was to launch an Experience Department that would be responsible for product events, marketing Jaga, and communicating the Jaga philosophy to potential customers and stakeholders. The Experience Department’s first important achievement was the development of the Experience Lab[ii] in 2005 to support engineers and sales people. The Experience Lab is a unique scientific climate laboratory for comparative studies and simulations between different heating and cooling systems. The Lab consists of a 600-cubic-meter climate chamber and a multi-functional auditorium. There are 2 identical test rooms in the climate chamber where comparative tests can be done. Extreme weather conditions can be simulated, with temperatures ranging from -30°C to +50°C. Several measurements are carried out simultaneously in the climate chamber and test rooms: air temperature, temperature of the walls, black bulb radiation temperature, flow and return water temperature, CO2 level, humidity etc. A total of 120 measurements are captured and recorded on the spot by the climate logger in the control room. All the data can then be visualized and projected so that visitors in the auditorium can follow the tests in real time. In the lab, which was certified by European universities, engineers could simulate different weather condition and calculate the heating time and costs (with and without a Jaga radiator). In this way not only the design aspects of the product became clear, but also the technology that makes Jaga radiators the best-performing ones in the industry.

 

The Experience Department supported engineers but also allowed collaboration with technology partners, suppliers and customers. Within the Experience Lab these different groups worked together on new technologies and heating systems. The lab was both a scientific test center and an open workplace where everyone could devise new concepts. It was also open for scientists to do simulations for personal research. By opening up to the scientific world, Jaga tried to connect with scientists and stay ahead of competition in product technology. Jaga could, for instance, test new technologies from technology partners early on—long before competition ever heard about those technologies. In addition, potential large customers could test the effectiveness of Jaga’s systems against competing solutions on the market. In this way, Jaga won contracts for some of the world's largest building projects such as the new PWC headquarters in London, the Mailbox in Birmingham, the Telefonica building in Madrid and the Federation Tower in Moscow.[iii]                 

 

Kriekels further stimulated the collective creativity by organizing the Jaga Product Days in June 2007. All Jaga personnel, suppliers and a network of artists were encouraged to present their ideas for future Jaga products. There were no a priori limitations indicating that the design had to be a radiator, but nonetheless submissions had to present new ideas about general heating solutions. They had only six weeks to invent and create a product idea or prototype on a flyer. The product ideas were evaluated and awarded during an official contest, where professional and non-professional designers were divided into two groups. For the non-professionals extra technical resources and guidance were provided. Although it was organised on a short notice, 119 ideas were submitted and presented in a hall near the Jaga factory in Diepenbeek; of these, 49 had been developed by non-professional designers.

 

One of the findings from this event was that simple adjustments to existing radiators could be very valuable. The Product Days idea resulted in several valuable new projects for Jaga and demonstrated that the company could benefit greatly from the individual creativity of its employees and network of partners.

 

Ten of these ideas were selected and were included in the Jaga catalogue. One of these projects was called “Play” which had the concept of a child-friendly radiator (Figure‑1). The colorful and removable parts of the radiator could be changed in design, customizing the radiator according to the interior of the bedroom.  It was designed with children’s safety in mind: The casing could not get hot and there were no sharp corners. The product developed rapidly as one of Jaga’s most successful products. The Product Days initiative sparked the creativity of Jaga employees to a maximum. It boosted Jaga’s morale and there were several great ideas which the company could introduce without paying any significant development costs.

 

Finally, the Uchronia Project is one of Kriekels’ projects that intends to bridge “different worlds”. In his view, most companies were not successful in tapping knowledge from external sources. He saw the potential to source ideas from external communities whose success was already proven in the ICT industry. In 2005, Jaga began to create a blueprint of a Uchronia (Greek for “timeless”) community of its own.

 

To officially launch the beginning of the Uchronia community, Jaga participated in the Burning Man festival in 2006. This annual event is held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada (USA). According to Kriekels, the philosophy of the Burning Man festival was similar to the goals the company set for Uchronia: to build new, beautiful art forms using a team of creative souls. Jaga participated in the festival to make a bold statement to the world. In total, 43 Belgians, including Jaga employees, labor representatives, and work partners built a massive wooden structure that consisted of 150 kilometers of timber, with a floor span of 60 by 30 meters and a height of 15 meters (See Figure‑3). The art piece was inspired by Arne Quinze, a Belgian artist, and Jan Kriekels, Jr. Building and then burning their art piece was meant to be the official start of the Uchronia project, while also drawing massive media attention. During the festival, the Uchronia community Web site (www.uchronians.org) was launched. Anyone could register free of charge on the site to become a “Uchronian”. The Web site had three major features: an interactive forum where people could share ideas, a project page where active projects were presented and updated with details about progress, and an inspiration page that posted interviews with recognized innovation leaders. The community, however, never materialized. Online community experts observed that “creativity” is too broad and too abstract as a concept to make people passionate about it. It became obvious that it was not possible to transplant the culture of Burning Man to the Uchronia site.

 

Jaga, a manufacturer of investment goods, faced a difficult financial situation in 2011 as a result of the continuing economic downturn that started in 2008. The deteriorated financial situation also had consequences for the workforce. When the economic crisis started in late 2008, Jaga didn’t fire any workers; instead, Jaga employees were asked to reduce their working time and they accepted temporary unemployment in order to avoid layoffs. There was a strong solidarity among Jaga employees: They preferred to share the burden of the crisis with one another rather than letting any part of the workforce be fired. As the crisis persisted, Jaga’s management team developed a plan in March 2011 to fire a substantial number of employees. However, Kriekels—owner of the company—decided that instead of firing employees he would fire half of the management team. Later on, Kriekels re-organized the company into smaller units, empowering those people who were actually involved in the design, production and sales of the products.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: The play radiator

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2: The Heatwave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3: The Uchronia project at the Burning Man festival 2006

 

 

Learn more about Jaga: 

      www.jaga.be 

      www.uchronians.org

 

 

 

[i]  Jan Kriekels also explains his philosophy in Youtube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU_usl-aH0w.

 

[ii]  Also see www.heating-studies.org for product tests and scientific experiments held at the Experience Lab

 

[iii] More  information about the Experience Lab at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVSU9_7TaTM

 

 

 

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