What DOD can learn about smarter innovation from a roll of toilet paper

Its focus on Silicon Valley has obscured lessons from the less-techy world of consumer products.

The headlines are familiar: “The U.S. Must Harness the Power of Silicon Valley to Spur Innovation.” “Start-Ups Bring Silicon Valley Ethos to a Lumbering Military-Industrial Complex.” Yet the defense community opines that DOD either has an innovation problem or an innovation adoption one. What if it also has an “innovation role-models problem?” That is to say, what if focusing so singularly on Silicon Valley is itself holding back innovation?

Defense leaders, policymakers, and practitioners spend a lot of energy on innovation. There are a Defense Innovation Board, a Defense Innovation Unit, a Defense Innovation Marketplace, and Defense Innovation Pathways. Every DOD federally funded research and development center and prominent national security think tanks have all produced recommendations on the subject. Search Defense One’sown archives, and you will find hundreds of articles that mention it.

Defense innovators and thought leaders recognize that most innovation happens outside the purview of traditional government research and development organizations. It’s why the Defense Innovation Unit and the new Office of Strategic Capital were created. Besides gaining access to commercial innovations themselves, leaders and practitioners are also interested in learning how the private sector innovates so successfully. However, we believe that DOD has been far too focused on Silicon Valley and tech innovators when there is much to be learned from other commercial sectors. This article elaborates on lessons from product and process—i.e., non-tech—innovation, using an unlikely source as inspiration: toilet paper.  

Over the past several months, Procter and Gamble rolled out Charmin Smooth Tear, an innovation in their Charmin product line. It’s a little thing—a change in the perforation pattern from a straight line to wavy—and yet it is the product of years of toil and intellectual capital. According to Liza Sanchez, P&G Vice President, Charmin Research & Development, this innovation was “a 5-6 year project, including phases such as product design, consumer appeal, equipment design, and manufacturing process, to establish this new and highly sophisticated perforation capability system in our manufacturing plants.”

This change makes it easier to tear individual squares with a single hand and creates an aesthetically pleasing, almost luxurious, roll. While supporting a single-handed tear is not exactly a national-security priority, the product’s patent reveals clues about smarter innovation, even for the DOD. Specifically: consider scale requirements much earlier in the process and focus on the smallest possible set of requirements before incorporating and refining additional desirable features. 

Start with scale

Charmin Smooth Tear was not the first time the engineers at P&G attempted to improve Charmin’s tearing. The inventors share in the patent that “previous approaches failed because they did not consider the impacts” of large-scale production characteristics. Any perforation design had to withstand the speeds and volumes required for machinery to mass-produce millions of rolls of toilet paper. Said Sanchez: “This is the first time in the history of toilet paper that [they] brought an entirely new technology into this space.” Delivering this innovation required “an entirely new module to the manufacturing line, which required precision engineering to get the tolerances of the equipment right and inventing and bringing in new proprietary technology to make this possible.” 

P&G is not the first company to discover the importance of designing for scale early in the process. It’s estimated that for every innovation a company launches, 99 others fail to pass key internal hurdles. The top reason is that they don’t lead to a viable product; the next-most-common reason is that the organization does not have the time, resources, or capabilities required to produce them. 

It’s also unlikely that P&G will be the last company to experience this lesson. Most “best-in-class” innovation frameworks and processes fail to account for scale until the final step of the process, if at all. Scale is not mentioned in the most common approach, Human-Centered Design, nor its widely adopted Design Thinking framework. the Lean Startup methodology treats scale as the natural outcome of repeated experiments, each occurring with larger and larger audiences. Given this lack of attention, it isn’t surprising that companies ultimately deem 20 percent of their innovation projects infeasible.

A few companies, however, consider scaling requirements at the optimum time: right after concluding that a proposed product fits a market sufficiently large to justify the investment. Take TomTom, the Dutch consumer electronics manufacturer whose TomTom Go created the personal-navigation device category. Launched in 2004, the device sold about a quarter-million units in its first year, five million in 2006, and 12 million in 2008. This growth was enabled by the company’s early and intent focus on managing cash, operations, and quality. “All part of the iceberg no one sees,” TomTom’s CEO and cofounder Harold Goddijn explained to McKinsey in a 2015 interview.

Scaling problems are common in DOD innovation too. Innovations commonly fall into the “valley of death“ while moving from prototype and experimentation to production and fielding. For small-business innovation programs (Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR; and Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR), the transition from phase II (prototyping) to phase III (commercialization) is quite low. One study found less than 10 percent of Air Force programs moved to phase III. An article about special operations acquisition touts a 25 percent rate as “among the highest in the Defense Department.” This transition can be difficult because small businesses lack sufficient capital to sustain themselves through the DOD budget cycle or innovators fail to consider the warfighter’s operating conditions. But it can also result from an inability to produce at the volumes and speeds required to be useful.

Silicon Valley’s focus on software—comparatively easy to duplicate and distribute—can obscure the difficulties in making the physical products that the U.S. military needs. DOD decision-makers and industry innovators must ask questions early about the feasibility of production. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency defined a set of questions in the 1970s to determine whether a project should be undertaken, affectionately known as the Heilmeier Catechism. There should be a similar set of questions for innovations; let’s call it the Charmin Inquiry. It could include questions such as: 1) What is required for mass production of this innovation? What challenges or blockers do we anticipate in mass production, such as supply limitations, production tolerance limitations, and worker skill shortages? 2) What dependencies exist? What other innovations are required to ensure this technology’s success? 3) What conditions must be met for this innovation to become a program of record? Is there a clear “owner” of the program? What requirements can/should it satisfy?

Start with the fewest possible requirements

The Charmin tear-line innovation had to solve two problems: support “reliable one-hand tearing dispensability” and be “commercial scale converting-process friendly.” That’s it. One requirement concerned its function; the other, its production. 

Only after identifying perforation patterns that satisfied both one-handed tearing and commercial-scale production requirements did the inventors refine the innovation by imposing additional specifications. (In this case, they wanted a pattern that conveyed “luxury, elegance, softness and/or strength” and would be noticeable enough to consumers to be differentiable.) By doing so, the inventors followed a common innovation mantra: Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Essentially a warning against the Einstellung effect, this statement reminds innovators that their priority is to identify and understand the problem to be solved and to remain flexible, even agnostic, to the solution. 

Consider another P&G product that embodies this approach: Swiffer. Now a billion-dollar brand, Swiffer was designed to do one thing: quickly and easily remove large and small particulate from floors. Multiple manual and powered models were developed and tested before settling on the simple design still in use today. Once the rough design was finalized, attention shifted to myriad other considerations, such as the pattern of the weave in the cloth, the color of the stick, and joint designs that could offer both flexibility and strength.

However, the true poster children for this mantra are the products often featured in infomercials. Estimated to exceed $250 billion, the market for infomercial products is growing even as the networks they are broadcast on decline. Companies like Rodan + Fields (Proactiv skincare), Telebrands (PedEgg, Slice-O-Matic, Hurricane Spin Mop), and Beachbody (P90X) generated hundreds of millions in revenue and became household names simply by developing products that solved one or two problems exceptionally well. 

This approach is somewhat anathema to the software development model. Developers might start with a minimum viable product, which delivers the smallest number of features to function. However, this “no-frills” version intends to get user feedback for continuous refinement. Over time, developers add and refine features in a pipeline of changes so frequent they are now called “continuous”: continuous integration, continuous deployment, and continuous delivery. 

While continuously adding or changing innovation requirements is a best practice in Silicon Valley, it can be disastrous outside the software world. Consider the littoral combat ship, probably the most commonly cited example of DOD trying to solve too many problems simultaneously. The ship came in over budget, late, and ultimately unsatisfactory—ironic in a vessel intended to use swappable modules to focus on a single mission at a time. Or consider drones, an area where Rep. Rob Wittman has said that “chasing requirements” leads to cost overruns and delivery delays. 

While defense platforms are necessarily more complex than a roll of toilet paper, they can still benefit from judicious requirements definitions. This is reflected in some corners of DOD. For instance, DARPA’s mosaic warfare concept composes mission capabilities across different platforms and sensors. In space and terrestrially, the services are looking at shifts from exquisite, multi-mission platforms to single-capability systems that can be more quickly produced and more expendable (due to lower cost). And yet they must fight against DOD’s tendency to pile on acquisitions and even exercises to eke more capability out of each investment. More DOD innovators should consider focusing on doing one thing well and examine the institutional blockers that need to be moved to do so.

Lessons beyond the Valley

Analogies and role models will always be imperfect matches to our needs. It’s why we’re encouraged to have more than one role model and multiple mentors. Different examples of “good” allow us to pick and choose the right model for the right need. DOD needs to look beyond Silicon Valley for private-sector models of effective innovation.

The Defense Innovation Board’s members represent a relatively limited set of disciplines—tech, finance, academia, and former government roles—though innovation does not exclusively occur in those arenas. Similarly, the current and former Defense Innovation Unit directors hail from the tech world, though DIU’s purview extends beyond just software and IT capabilities. Expanding the backgrounds of defense innovation advisors and leaders would be a productive first step to building a more extensive set of role models. 

It might not be as sexy as a new app, but toilet paper has lessons that can inform DOD’s pursuit of innovation. Perhaps expanding who DOD turns to for lessons on innovating is what’s been missing.

Margaux Hoar has been providing advice and insight to DOD leaders for nearly 20 years. She is an advocate for new ways of thinking and is an innovator herself. She led a study that informed the stand-up of the United States Space Force and drove strategic changes at Amazon Web Services. The opinions expressed here are her own.

Robyn M. Bolton is an expert in corporate innovation with over 20 years experience. Formerly at P&G, she was on the team that developed and launched Swiffer and Swiffer WetJet. Robyn is a Harvard Business School graduate and alumna of The Boston Consulting Group and Innosight, Clayton Christensen’s strategy and innovation consultancy. She is the founder of MileZero, an innovation advisory firm. The opinions expressed here are her own.