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Innovation that starts on the factory floor

John Deere knows good ideas can come from anywhere—and anyone. The key is getting them onto the drawing board and into the field.

Innovation that starts on the factory floor
John Deere employees are encouraged to submit ideas that will improve safety, quality, or efficiency—all of which are vetted within 48 hours.

Nearly 200 years ago, John Deere wasn’t a household name. John Deere was a prairie blacksmith who used a polished steel saw blade to craft a better plow. His idea revolutionized farming and served as the inception of Deere & Company, now one of the world’s leading providers of advanced products and services for agriculture and construction.

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In the same revolutionary spirit, John Deere in 2017 acquired a Silicon Valley startup, Blue River Technology, to craft smarter machines. Computer vision and machine learning can distinguish weeds from crops and spray herbicide only on the offenders. This precise weed control has the potential to cut herbicide volumes by 90%, reducing costs for farmers and benefiting the environment. “That’s a future we all want,” says John Stone, Deere & Company’s President, Worldwide Construction & Forestry and Power Systems.

Such innovation signals an ongoing focus on delivering machines and applications that continue to revolutionize the industries John Deere serves—a quality that landed it on Fast Company‘s list of the Best Workplaces for Innovators.

“For John Deere to realize our Smart Industrial vision, innovation has to be there,” Stone says. “And it has to be empowered, encouraged, invested in, and cultivated.”

IDEAS ENCOURAGED

At John Deere, cultivating innovation starts with tapping into workers’ insights. “Those factories, assembly lines, and machining operations are ultimately producing the products that our customers use to earn their living,” Stone says.

That’s why the company adopted its “continuous improvement” process 20 years ago. The procedure begins with message boards installed in John Deere factories, where workers share ideas that improve safety, quality, or efficiency. Within 48 hours or so, every idea is vetted and discussed with the worker. Then, a team pursues a solution, tests it, and, when appropriate, implements it. Closing the loop, John Deere rewards the workers, whose ideas are implemented with both recognition and bonus pay. That follow-through is key, Stone says. “If I put an idea up and nobody ever talks to me about it, I’m probably not going to put another idea up,” he says. “But if somebody talks to me within a day or two—that’s how we encourage innovation to continue.”

This scenario played out recently when a machine operator in the company’s Drivetrain Operations in Waterloo, Iowa, raised questions about a challenging aspect of the production process. Making the shafts used in tractor transmissions involved washing each one in acid—a cumbersome and potentially dangerous activity. The employee flagged the issue, which led to a discovery by a manufacturing engineer that the acid washing was a superfluous step. This led to the acid-wash step being removed from the production process—an efficient change that also happened to save the company $100,000 annually.

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“The more we can do to strengthen safety, quality, and efficiency in our factories, the more our farmers, construction contractors, and other customers will be able to invest in us,” Stone says.

PUTTING THE CUSTOMER FIRST

Innovation is essential to John Deere’s future, and Stone expects the company to continue drawing inspiration from its founder: A more efficient plow helped farmers work faster. That same creative problem solving will fuel the company’s approach to innovation.

“I see us getting closer and closer to our customers,” he says. “We’re watching them do their jobs, and listening and learning from them, so we can really solve the hardest problems they face.”

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