Innovation on Tap

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

The most important concept in the quest for innovation is neither complex nor hard to implement in the end. It is a concept that arises in every form of business that has a "product." The problem is that this concept very often gets lost when the day-to-day demands of operations dominate time and thinking.

Fixing Faucets
Our quest begins in the kitchen of an ordinary house—your house. That kitchen has a sink in it, and the sink has a faucet. That faucet has many attributes. It may be chrome or gold or bronze or white or any of several other colors. It may have two handles (one each for hot and cold), or it may have just one handle that swivels and lifts to adjust temperature and water pressure. It may be part of a set of devices that includes a spray head or a water purifier.

But, despite these variations, a faucet is a commodity. Right? Everybody has one. Growth in the plumbing fixtures industry has been steady but low—about 3 to 4% per year for the past decade. Growth comes from new construction and remodeling of existing houses. Faucets last a long time and are easy to repair, so people rarely replace them outside the context of a remodeling.

But you are about to change that. You are about to turn the plumbing fixtures industry on its ear. You are going to create such an innovative product that everyone planning new construction will want to use it and existing homeowners will have a strong incentive to replace what they have now with your new product.

But first you have to ask the right question. The good news is that this is not that hard to do. It is a lot more likely that you will find the right question than that you will find the winning lottery ticket.

The Faucet Problem
Here's some market research that may or may not be helpful to you. When asked what motivated their buying decisions on kitchen faucets, purchasers listed the factors in this order:
1. Style/color
2. Durability/warranty
3. Price
4. Brand

When asked what they liked most about their current kitchen faucets, homeowners ranked their results in this order:
1. Style/color
2. Durability
3. Ease of repair

The emphases on style and durability have not been lost on manufacturers. The motto of Moen, a leading faucet maker, is "Buy for Looks—Buy for Life." Delta's motto is "We Work Wonders with Water." Moen and Delta each have about 25% of the market, and these two companies seem to have much the same philosophy.

So here is your task: Given what you now know about the kitchen faucet business, and given what you can easily find out by, say, walking into the kitchen and looking at a faucet, give yourself 10 minutes to come up with two good product innovations for kitchen faucets. There are no other rules. There are winners and losers, but you will be the only one to know which category you fall into.

Now, we will assume that 10 minutes have gone by and that you have two ideas written down. See if you can find something like your idea in the following list. It doesn't have to match up exactly, just be pretty close.

1. Faucets with removable "skins" so that you can change the color whenever you want
2. Faucets with various wood tones
3. A retractable faucet that hides away when not in use
4. A "retro" faucet look
5. An ultrathin faucet handle that is virtually invisible
6. An easy-to-clean, crud-free faucet
7. An easy-to-replace faucet

Is your idea in that group or reasonably close to it? Well, then you lose. None of these are innovations. They are merely mutations. If your answer is like the ones on this list, then you failed to ask a basic question. You were lured away from innovating by market research that simply reflects a similar failure to ask the right question. The folks who did that research accepted the idea that faucets were a commodity, and thus they felt that differentiation would be based on style—on which faucet was prettiest.

That is nonsense, because "prettiness" is as much a commodity in faucets as it is in beauty contests. You have to have prettiness, but so does everyone else. In the end, your product does not stand out from the rest in any meaningful way. Innovation, especially in what appears to be a commoditized product line, requires a quite different approach from merely changing the appearance of the faucet or the flavor of the cereal or the placement of the ice machine on the refrigerator door.

Getting Down to Tasks
Now for the million-dollar question that’s truly at the heart of innovation: What tasks is the product really used for?

Well, that's a relatively simple question to answer, isn't it? It is—if you understand the difference between task and function. The function of all faucets is to provide access to flowing water. That's true for the faucet in the kitchen, the one in the bathroom sink, the one in the tub or shower, and the one outside in the garden. The function tells us what a faucet does, not what tasks it is intended to facilitate. If we mistake function for task, then all we can do is change the color or style, and there is no innovation in that because it does not facilitate the task. It does not make the faucet better at doing the thing we use it for.

To innovate, we must get beyond functions and understand the tasks. And tasks differ, even for faucets.

In the bathroom sink, my tasks are:
Wash hands.
Obtain drinking water.
Brush teeth.

In the tub, my tasks are:
Fill tub.
Rinse hair.

In the garden, my tasks are:
Provide water for plants and grass.
Clean outside surfaces.

In the kitchen, my tasks are:
Wash hands.
Wash dishes.
Wash food.
Obtain specific amounts of water for cooking.

Now we are on to something. We are no longer dealing with abstract faucets. We are dealing with faucets in a context, and that context includes specific tasks. These tasks can be analyzed, and we can see how well the kitchen faucet performs each of them.

It turns out that the kitchen faucet does a pretty poor job at what it is supposed to do. It turns out that this "commodity" has acres of room for innovation. Each faucet location has different tasks associated with it, so having a single faucet design is itself wrong. But that is essentially what the plumbing fixtures industry has provided. Faucets in all locations are essentially the same except for style, even though they are intended to do quite different things. Each location would clearly benefit from a different design. For instance, a garden faucet can benefit from a built-in easy hose connection. In fact, a proprietary hose connection for a garden faucet that was really good would allow you to gain a piece of the hose market as well because you would build the compatible hose. That same easy hose connection would be useless in the bathroom sink.

Let us take a closer look at three of the tasks associated with our kitchen faucet:
Task 1: Wash hands.
Task 2: Wash dishes.
Task 3: Wash food.

What could be simpler than washing one's hands? We have been doing it all our lives, and it is very simple to do. First, you go to the sink. Second, you obtain a soap of some sort, which, one hopes, is located near the sink. Third, you turn on the water and set it to a temperature that is warm but still comfortable. Fourth, you wet your hands. Fifth, you apply the soap. Sixth, you rub your hands vigorously together to clean them. Seventh, you rinse your hands under the still running water. Eighth, you dry your hands on a nearby towel. Ninth, you turn off the water.

Why, it's as easy as 1, 2, 3 . . . 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

But, seriously, it has taken you nine steps, and you have poured a couple of gallons of heated water down the drain. You have engaged in an activity that is a lot more complicated than it needs to be, and you have wasted water and energy at the same time. And, in truth, you have defeated your own purpose because your ninth step was to touch the faucet again—a faucet that was last touched by your dirty hands. "There must be a better way to do this," you say. Well, there is.

The great hand washers of the world are doctors. They wash their hands constantly and efficiently. Their sinks have a foot pedal that allows them to start the flow of water at a preset temperature and to stop it without using their hands. They achieve the same result as the nine-step method with greater simplicity and much less waste of water and energy. Similar advances have been adopted at many public restrooms, where sensor-activated faucets start the flow of water at a preset temperature.

That's innovation. And this same innovation both simplifies and makes more efficient the tasks of washing dishes and washing food. Go to your local Home Depot and see if you find this option in the kitchen faucet section. Of course, such faucets are manufactured now. We see them in doctors' offices and restaurant kitchens. You can buy them from plumbing supply stores. But you would be hard pressed to find them in the largest faucet market of all—the home market.

Now let us look at the fourth kitchen faucet task: Obtain specific amounts of water for cooking. Our foot-pedal kitchen faucet would make this task easier as well, but there are two other innovations that would make this task simpler still. First, as we analyze the task, we see that water is usually measured in cups or in fluid ounces, which are readily convertible to cups. What if we could just put a pot under a faucet, hit a button one time for each cup we wanted, and then leave while premeasured amounts of water flowed from the faucet? That would certainly make life simpler and would remove the need to get out a measuring device as well. It would also save water and energy because we wouldn't have water flowing while we moved the measuring cup from the faucet to the pot. And then we would not have to clean a measuring cup.

But even better, what if such a measuring faucet was located not at the sink, but on the stove itself? If the amount is premeasured and there is no risk of overflow, then you do not need to use the sink to get the water you need for cooking. You can save steps as well as energy and water. And your kitchen is more useful as well. How many times in a one-sink kitchen have you waited to get water from the sink faucet while the sink was being used for something else?

Finding the Task Underneath the Function
The types of innovations I have just described are not derived from understanding market research or from understanding how faucets work. They are derived from understanding the task. Knowing what the tasks are is the first step toward innovation. It is not the final step, but it is the essential step. After the tasks have been identified, then other steps are needed. Pain points must be identified, and after-market products (such as measuring cups, which are after-market products for faucets) must be looked at to see how they can be displaced. But you will get nowhere at all without looking at the tasks.

But, you say, good market research will reveal this. "You can find this out in focus groups." Probably not. Your average customers have the same problem you have in product development: They have a good deal of difficulty looking past the existing paradigm. They take as a given the fact that they have to use a cup to measure water and do not challenge it. They go into a Home Depot faucet department looking at color and style. They are not looking for a self-measuring faucet. You have to walk through a task and analyze each step before you come to this result.

Market research is not likely to bring you there because the customer in the focus group or survey panel is unlikely to have gone through the analysis necessary for you to see what needs to be done. As the innovator, your task is to go out and observe and know deeply the tasks that your products facilitate. You must understand hand washing (the task), not water flow (the function). Once you identify the tasks, then you can bring proposed innovations to focus groups and the like. If you have analyzed the tasks correctly, then you will see a response that includes a lot of "Wows." If you haven't analyzed the tasks correctly, you will hear a lot of "Huhs?" or "So whats?" instead.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from Something Really New by Denis J. Hauptly. Copyright 2007, Denis J. Hauptly. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. For information about other AMACOM books, visit