The Time it Takes for Innovation at Heinz Worries Me

Image by Martin F. Ramin for The Wall Street Journal
It was reported by the Wall Street Journal that the executives at Heinz spent 3 years developing a new larger ketchup packet that contains 3 times more ketchup than the original.

Some people rip off the corner of the packet with their teeth. Others, while driving, squirt the ketchup directly into their mouth, then add fries. Some forgo fries at the drive-through all together to keep from creating a mess in the car.
After observing these and other “compensating behaviors,” H. J. Heinz Co. says it spent three years developing a better ketchup packet.
As the name promises, “Dip and Squeeze” ketchup can be squeezed out through one end or the lid can be peeled back for dipping. The red, bottle-shaped packets hold three times the ketchup as traditional packets. The new containers are more expensive than the old sleeves, but Heinz hopes customers learn not to grab more than one or two.
To develop the new packet, Heinz staffers sat behind one-way, mirrored glass, watching consumers in 20 fake minivan interiors putting ketchup on fries, burgers, and chicken nuggets.
To try new prototypes himself, Mike Okoroafor, Heinz vice president of global packaging innovation and execution, bought a used minivan, taking it to local McDonald’s and Wendy’s drive-throughs to order fries and apply ketchup in the confined space.

After reading this article, 2 things came to mind.
The first thing was that: it’s about time! I recalled a distinct gnashing of teeth when my overenthusiastic ripping of a ketchup packet caused it to explode all over my t-shirt.
The second thing that came to mind, almost simultaneously with the first, was that this design thinking project took 3 years to complete? I had to reread that paragraph twice just to be sure that I got it right. While I don’t have the full details apart from what was reported in the article, and most of us probably don’t work at Heinz, but don’t you think 3 years seem excessive for a product of this nature?
I’m sure it can be argued that good design takes time to gestate, but a good design team with a strong critical insight should be able to do this, working full time, in less than 1/3 of that time. And that is even a conservative estimate.
However if we consider that this packet was “design by committee”, then things could start to get a little clearer. If this was the case, then I fully applaud the sheer willpower of the design team in seeing the project (and its countless of iterations) to its end.
The longest I’ve ever worked on a project was over a year, operating 6 days a week leading a team of 5 designing a range of 11 products. I was burnt out after that experience. So I can’t begin to imagine what working on a project for 3 years feels like. If design thinking has to even take this long to implement, then it is no wonder businesses are losing faith in the approach.
I would love to hear your thoughts? Also if there is someone who has been close to this project and can share further insights, please do!
Via: Thoughyoushouldseethis

8 Comments
  • KS

    November 4, 2011 at 2:37 am Reply

    As a designer at an unnamed CPG Fortune 50 company, my reaction was more, “I am amazed that Heinz was able to redesign a core product *at all,* let alone with so much change and design thinking behind it.”
    The time innovation takes at enormous corporations worries me, too. The size and scale of business; the number of other teams that must be enrolled in innovation (think marketing, distribution, packaging and production, sales teams for customers like McDonald’s), and the amount of work and *especially* risk that change represents to business are all incredible obstacles for design to overcome. Politics can pervert good decision making, as can reward and promotion structures within these companies.
    I would imagine that the Heinz design team had sketched this final idea within a week or two of the beginning of their project. The process of bringing innovation to life within an enormous corporation takes far longer and requires much, much harder, patient work. It is important for all designers to understand that good ideas are the price of entry for the sisyphean task of supporting innovation.

  • Stefan R.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:57 pm Reply

    To be honest, this is nothing new to me. When I look back at my Industrial (Product) Design experience. I had worked on projects, for similarly big and popular companies and even three years after successful delivery of the proposals, they are not yet put to market but are still in the process. It was all clear at the presentation phase that way too many decission makers in the round are setting barriers, are unclear of what they want. All this is a nightmare as it slows the process down.
    On the other hand at other a bit smaller companies, there is a way clearer decision making from the beginning. So here, time to market takes a normal ~1 year after delivering successful design proposals (Industrial Design).
    Conclusion. Companies like Heinz that are not very frequently doing similar innovation (correct me if I’m wrong) but rely for years on established products are hard at deciding to “change the game” with new thinking (designs). I think it is a careful “conservatism”, fear of losing customers’ faith and sometimes complex comitee of decision makers, that lead to similar slow down in putting innovation to market.

  • Justin Moore-Brown

    November 6, 2011 at 5:27 am Reply

    I can’t imagine all of the red tape that has to be cut through to push an idea forward at a large company.
    Just imagine how many ideas are just sitting on the shelves because they were deemed “impractical” or “cost-ineffective”.
    Liking that new package though and will look forward to it’s release!

  • Nathan Yerian

    November 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm Reply

    The inefficiency of large corporations and their inability to recognize opportunities and move on them is the the exact thing that allows new companies to move into a space.
    Yes, I think it is a little ridiculous for a ketchup packet to take three years. Internal design teams are always limited by politics and rules. I believe this project could have been completed much sooner had it been outsourced to a reputable company.
    That said, Heinz won this one in the end, but the next time there is a development in the ketchup arena, they may not be so lucky.

  • Maryline

    November 15, 2011 at 8:50 pm Reply

    I am surprised that 3 years produced this packet of ketchup. To spend 3 years on this project I was expecting a lot more. But as mentioned before innovation tend to be slow in large corporation and when you factor in the politics it makes things even worse.
    Also I can’t help to think that promoting eating in your car is a way of promoting distraction in a car, and we all know where that can lead.

  • khaled

    January 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm Reply

    3 Years seems excessive, when you go to a restaurant/fast food they have sachets of tomato sauce, vinegar etc, they may also have mini tubs of spreads and this is just a hybrid of the two. Watching consumers from 20 fake minivan then hiring a used van just to test the ketchup in a confined space seem crazy. How many different ways can someone use a sachet and the last time I checked if you want a confined space try applying it in a car not a van, which have plenty of space in. I have to agree with Nathan that if the project was outsourced it would have been completed a lot sooner and likely on a much smaller budget. At a time where other companies are cutting back Heinz seems to be throwing money away.

  • Karen

    January 27, 2012 at 3:51 am Reply

    I’m actually not surprised at the three year timeframe. Having worked in innovation at a large corporation, with a core product that was produced at the rate of thousands per hour, I know the challenges that change can bring. Yes, there was probably red tape. And there were probably a number of design iterations. There was also probably a huge capital cost that had to be considered, on a package that is probably next to no margin, and those decision are what usually slow the process down. Selling the benefits internally and getting sign off for investment, particularly in a down economy, can be a major undertaking.

  • Robert Ziegler

    November 30, 2012 at 5:17 am Reply

    While I won’t go into details, we worked on the industrial design of this, which itself took considerably less than three years.
    What most people don’t have any awareness of is the sheer scale of products like this. Heinz produces something like 40 Billion condiment packets per year! Imagine what it takes to commercialize something on that scale… how many people, how much capital, how much marketing, how much supply chain organization, etc… To produce more than enough condiments to coat all of the 5 boroughs of NYC and some of the surrounding counties.
    And then imagine the level of attention to engineering down to the nano level (literally using scanning electron microscopy), to ensure package failure and food contamination rates are near to zero.
    And then imagine the speed at which the filling lines must run. They’re often too fast to follow with the eye.
    Now you’ve got an idea of what you’re really looking at in the packaging design world. SKUs which are produced at rates of a million or more per day. It’s worlds apart from designing or producing an iconic orange juice squeezer for Alessi. But if it’s done right, it becomes a different kind of icon. In this case, a celebration and reintroduction of one that’s been around for over a century, but was disappearing in the foodservice arena: the trademarked Heinz bottle. Only a handful of packages (eg. Coke’s glass bottle and Heinz’s hexagonal glass bottle) have ever qualified as registered trademarks.
    So I echo the first Fortune 50 poster’s comment: that such projects happen at all is quite incredible.
    To the question of why ‘this’ design: We invented and designed multiple approaches to the same problem. Some solutions had greater levels of user experience, some less… each had different cost and manufacturing structures. They weren’t sketched in the first week of the project. In fact, the real industrial design activity didn’t occur for some time. But when it did, our work resulted in 6-8 patents granted and pending. The package received more positive national TV news coverage than just about any packaging design ever. Pretty proud of our client for getting it to market.
    Cheers, and enjoy your Wendy’s or Chick-Fil-A fries with that!

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