Podcast: Delve Talks with Cynthia Bachmann, Kohler | Delve
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Delve Talks featuring Cynthia Bachmann, Kohler Company

August 26, 2019

Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our first season focuses on what it takes to create a corporate culture that supports innovation.


Dave Franchino: I'm your host Dave Franchino and thanks for joining us today. My guest is Cynthia Bachmann, Vice President of Engineering and Product Design at Kohler Company. Just a bit of history about Kohler. I think probably everybody recognizes Kohler, founded in 1873. So, it’s a very established family company. It produces a really broad range of products. Probably best known for plumbing fixtures, tile, furniture and cabinetry, but it extends into a broad range of consumer and commercial goods, as well. And for a company that's nearly 150 years old, one of things I really appreciate about Kohler is how well known it is as an innovator. In fact, I remember distinctly the “Bold Look of Kohler” and what a profound impact that branding message had a me.

So, it's changed over time. At CES in 2018, Kohler unveiled a new line of products called Kohler Konnect, which extended well beyond the traditional bath appliances. It connected with smart appliances, bathtubs, mirrors, shower heads, and faucets and all. Digital fixtures have Wi-Fi capabilities and in variables voice control through Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, those sorts of things and app control via a custom application.

So, joining me today on the show, Cynthia Bachmann. Thank you very much for joining us. Maybe for our listeners if you just start by telling us a little bit about your background that be a good way to get started.

Cynthia Bachmann: So, I serve in the role of Leader/ Vice President of Engineering and Product Development in our Kitchen and Bath Group, which is one of the four business groups at Kohler. I've been with Kohler for almost 24 years and really have made product development. my life's work. I came into a role that was, you know, part of the NPD community at the time and about two years into my tenure I was appointed director and then VP. And I've stayed in that role. Although the role has grown tremendously as the company has grown from a very intimate, small business 20-25 years ago to a totally globalized business, really in every sector in which we participate.

So, it's been it's been a kick to be a part of seeing that happen in a lot of ways, you know, having some influence on what it takes to do that. So, a lot of organizational capability change over the years and, as you can imagine, very relevant to this conversation is taking what was a very sort of inherent sense for Innovation and innovation in marketing and branding as well as in product and technology and teaching and training a workforce that's growing at a really quick pace. So, I think even when I came into the company there was no training about what Kohler was. You sort of absorbed it by being around people and being in conversations and you sort of got it by osmosis. But you know, you can't when you when you grow an organization at the pace we’ve grown it. You can't rely on osmosis to get you to those strong senses of brand and what we stand for. So that's been it's been an interesting road to try to figure out how to create a culture for innovation in the Kohler way, you know, so not to lose what we've done in the past and all the good, but then make it even better and grow that capability.

C Bachmann
Cynthia Bachmann, VP of Engineering & Product Development, Kohler Company

Dave Franchino: Tell me a little bit more about that. I mean the company has grown dramatically. The businesses have inarguably gotten a lot more complicated and yet you still have to maintain kind of a corporate soul or essence around innovation with an organization which expanded beyond the people that you can sort of touch on a day-to-day basis. What are things you've done to try to foster a culture of innovation across an organization so complex and so dynamic?

Cynthia Bachmann: You know, it's interesting. I mean, it's wonderful that people view Kohler and as I interact with people, they always cite that (innovation), but we're constantly were never good enough for ourselves. And so, we're constantly saying, do we have a culture for innovation or how can we make that stronger. And I've seen over my 20 years or so sort of an ebb and flow, and I think every business is like that where you have, you know, really strong performance in a certain area and whether its technical innovation or brand innovation, and then you sort of hit another dip and then you come back up. Good enough isn't good enough, but it's we're always seeking to be better and that's it. Sounds like a cliché, but I think at Kohler it’s just we're never satisfied. I call it a healthy paranoia, honestly, and it can drive us crazy at times, but I think it's what keeps us, you know, striving for more and keeps us edgy.

The businesses have changed tremendously. So just in the kitchen and bath business that I'm in, it's a consumer-facing business that was heavily influenced by the likes of plumbers and distributors who we were great friends for 125 years and then the internet came along and all of a sudden, the influencers were not only those individuals. But then every other thing, new competition, new technologies that became threats to our business and certainly the whole smart home area is one of those. Consumers have so much more information. And so, all of our brand premiums are things that we maybe could get away with for years and years, but now there is a whole level of transparency that really forced us to get a whole lot better in everything we do.

So, we talk about innovation as something that changes a consumer’s expectation. It's not just giving them something new and different, but it changes their expectation of plumbing products and in the case of my industry it's very based in experience. Not just the product or the widget. So those are the things that I think have changed for me over the 20 years. I've seen us go from products to thinking in terms of experiences and going a whole lot deeper. It's, how the product installs, how the product operates, even how the product gets disposed of at end of life, how we sell the product the channels through which we sell, and there's innovation in every single piece of that of that pie. And that was not the case 20 years ago. So, we've had to go there because the world has demanded that of us I you know, we have lots of potential to get better and better we know it. We can't let down. Yeah.

Dave Franchino: I really love that definition of innovation – something that changes the customer’s expectations. I've not heard that before. I think that's really dynamic. Now, one thing that I find really interesting about a company like Kohler and some of the other very established and prestigious companies that we work for – you have such a strong brand. I suspect that brand can be both a tremendous asset for innovation and, in some respects, can probably be a hindrance. What do you think? What’s is like to try to be innovative with an established brand versus an emerging Silicon Valley technology company? What does it mean to be innovative at a company like Kohler?

Cynthia Bachmann: Yeah. I think that's a really good observation. I think we do we have to protect ourselves from protecting the brand too heavily. So, you know when we get into conversations, there will be conversations about “Is that Kohler brand?” or “How perfect does it have to be before we would take it to market?” Quite often, it’s one of the difficulties and we're used to being all buttoned up and everything is exactly as intended. I think all the best practices of innovation tell you to not only experiment in the lab but actually experiment in the market, as well, and we're still grappling with that, frankly. And so, if you want it to hearken to the brand, we're not trying to allow the brand to live as an old brand but to transform it and maintain its essence in the long run. And that's a hard conversation in it takes honestly real leadership because it's not a clear decision anytime. It takes some thoughtfulness and some “what if” scenarios, perhaps, and, frankly, asking some of our best customers what they would think. I mean, I don't know that they've ever come back and said “Yeah, that's not Kohler brand.” But we really get into that conversation a lot and does it hinder people's innovative, creative spirit? Perhaps but we're trying to make a difference, you know, (we invite employees to) bring your ideas and build on those ideas from the decision to go forward – and don't prejudge.

I guess that's just one of the things that we're practicing all the time is how. We talked about “don't analyze yourself into insight.”, Sometimes insight is not data driven and you have to be comfortable with that and you have to be comfortable with ambiguity, particularly in new to newer technology areas. And those are the things that we struggle with. I think everybody struggles with them

Dave Franchino: Interesting. You said during this conversation you haven't been hard on Kohler, but it's clear that you see potential and opportunity to get better, which I think is inspiring. To what extent do you think innovation is enhanced or challenged by challenging your organization to get better in recognizing areas of improvement or warts? It would be easy to come in here and talk about nothing but wonderful things, but you've talked about areas where you feel your organization can improve.

Cynthia Bachmann: Yeah, I think, boy, innovation starts with leadership. In fact, I remember I was part of an article that was written at Kohler with my colleague and it was very much ... I remember saying my job is not, you know, I'm not the creative. I'm the engineer, but my job is to set up an atmosphere in which creativity and Innovation can flourish and I really felt like that 15 years ago and I feel like that even more so today. I think leadership has a huge job and it's a hard job to set up an atmosphere in which those you know – I mean all people, I'm not saying just the innovation ghetto that sits in a corner – but honestly everybody feels like they have a responsibility for a level of innovation. We really believe that innovation comes big and small in product and process and services and business processes. It's not limited to product.

Although I'll say I think we are fighting every day to help people understand that you can innovate a business process just in the same way that you can everybody thinks about the widget as the creative exercise. But I think in those ways Kohler creates even more of a culture when it when it's just happening sort of every day in every way in things big and small. And then, you know, there’s leadership. Like I said, leadership plays a huge part.

We're really fortunate to have senior leaders in virtually every position that don't just say “be innovative.” They are on the front line being interested in people who are doing crazy things or asking questions in a way that would lead people to think that they have permission to innovate. They have permission to change something because there's a better way, so I think it's being interested and asking questions and then walking the talk, they themselves being willing to innovate on how they approach a meeting. We’ve had some of that recently. It's like we just really don't like how these (meetings) are being run and, you know, can we can we change it up? And the willingness to try and learn themselves is, I think, really important. I would say at Kohler we've had to bring consciousness to that in recent years that the culture is not just the workforce’s responsibility. It actually starts with leadership and we have to show the way.

Dave Franchino: Let me plumb into that a little bit more. I've been thinking a lot about that relative to our organization and I think one of the characteristics as you rise to a level of influence such as you have within Kohler – it maybe becomes a little bit easier for you to see both the threats and the opportunities to the business. But how do you instill that culture down to the lowest-earner earliest levels of the organization? Down to the designers, the engineers, the technicians, the manufacturing floor that might view Kohler as, you know, more of a stable monolith than you do?

Cynthia Bachmann: Well, in fact, some may be attracted to it because of that, right? Yeah. That's actually more of the “we want we want to be edgy and stable at the same time.” So that's always an interesting conversation. I'll call it transparency, not in a negative way, but sharing all the insights we have. We have a lot of people that are out in the out in the field either because they’re sales or service technicians or you know, bringing that information back to in our product development team and making that more transparent, even though it's not analyzed and synthesized. We don't know what it means, necessarily, but it's insight. I have a great example of where we've had some of our highest-level toileting engineers, who probably for the last five years we've put them in front of customers on a regular basis. So probably four to six times a year, they are the ones that are actually interacting with customers, with plumbers, and the amount of ideas that have been generated from those interactions – a lot of them are small, little elegant changes – but they've made a huge difference and there you can see the engineers are more excited because they're actually dealing with real life input as opposed to something that's been synthesized through marketing or in some of report. So, I think it's the closer you can get to know customers and the closer you can get to the dynamics of the industry, of business.

In today's world, there's so much information at our fingertips. Just turn the TV on – CNN will tell you, CNBC will tell you, and I think you can go on overload there, but I think it's really important for our workforce to have a sense of the of the dynamics that affect the business. So, I think we've gotten better and better at sharing. I often use the phrase “If only Kohler knew what Kohler knows.” I've been fortunate that I see a lot of the different pieces and they don't necessarily connect together unless you connect them together and we need to get better and better at that. But I think the workforce is now, you know calling for that more. They're pulling for it. So, it's easier to say, “Oh, yeah, there's no reason you can't know that or we shouldn't share that.” It just doesn't always occur to those that are generating the insight that a broader audience might benefit from it.

So, I think that's how you create. You create some fertile soil for people to then pick out the seeds that are going to grow there. We've tried to create some forums in which people can bring forward whatever ideas they have that may or may not fit in the strategy, but we'll sort that out later. So we're you know, we're sharing strategy and sharing insight so that can be a backbone, but at the same time not pushing them away when something isn't a clear a fit because sometimes it goes on the shelf and two years later, all of a sudden, “Remember that thing we should really do?” that comes back later or people build on it and all of a sudden it does become relevant. And those aren't easy things to do because it's taking away from you know, core time, core business, but I think we get more back from our workforce when we are open in that way.

Dave Franchino: You wrote a fantastic blog on optimism recently. In fact, let's make sure we can somehow direct our listeners to that blog because it really inspired me and I found it fascinating because, and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, as a fellow engineer I don't generally equate engineers with optimism. In some respects, we tend to be sort of risk averse and pessimistic and almost thinking of the worst case. Tell me a little bit more about your perspective on optimism and how that might play into a culture of innovation.

Cynthia Bachmann: I think it absolutely is a cornerstone to innovation because if you're not optimistic that there's a good problem to solve or a solution to that problem why would you ever pursue something wicked? You know world challenges you can ask – and I'm not saying we're working in that area – but I think I think you have to believe that there's a solution to pursue a solution that's really hard. That doesn't mean that it just comes to you and you dream of it and it just comes to you. You have to work at it, but you have to believe that it's worth doing and so I think it really is two parts for me – finding the right problems to solve and then believing that you can solve them or make them better. Even if you don't solve it solve it, that's sort of the essence of optimism for me. I've come to that more in the later parts of my career, when I think back on some things, but I think I've had people tell me that that's one of the reasons that I often land in a leadership kind of role in almost anything that I take on or get involved with. And it's because I just believe that, you know, we can do this. Let's figure it out and it takes that kind of a spirit sometimes to get through some ugly stuff.

Dave Franchino: I don't think you're giving yourself credit when you say not all the problems you work on are significant because I know you've been involved with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation working on some on sanitation issues. I know that sometimes innovation at a company like Kohler is just making somebody's day a little bit more delightful or giving a little bit more enjoyment to the day. Tell me a little bit about finding a higher purpose in the challenges that you have within your company and how that can drive innovation.

Cynthia Bachmann: Yeah, I think our “Innovation for Good” – we've now given it a sort of a title – is something didn't do several years ago. Although it was emerging, you know, again we’re really fortunate, Kohler has a heritage of stewardship to the community and we've extended that as we've grown into a global company where we're certainly in more developed markets, that is sort of our core, but we're not immune to the underdeveloped world and how little Kohler Company could maybe help there. And so, we've used this Innovation for Good platform as a way to engage our associates in action, using some of that creative talent and directing them to sort of non-core ideas, but the things that are still relevant to Kohler Company businesses. So, we use the platform to guide our work and obviously clean water and sanitation fits squarely in our business. And what we find is as people are thinking about underprivileged areas that quite often some of the solutions that you might put in place actually inspire innovations in more developed countries. So, it's serving us in a number of different levels, but I think for many, me included, that it is one of the things that have sort of got me through the tough times at Kohler because there was something that was sort of beyond the core business that we could plug into as well.

The things that that we've learned from our association with the Gates Foundation – and it's not just the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it's the whole network that they're plugged into – that then all of a sudden you become aware of access. They pick up the phone. They get the answer your questions and connect it to the next level of network. It’s just an amazing thing. And so, I'm really proud of us for having gotten into that and I think it will in various ways be serving company Kohler for a long, long time.

Dave Franchino: You’ve got the advantage of 150 years of heritage at your side, but you also have the weight of having to maintain 150 of heritage. What keeps you up at night?

Cynthia Bachmann: Your favorite question. Well, I think it's that healthy paranoia that we’ll be disrupted. Just because you've lasted 150 years does not mean your business is not disruptive and I think if I distill all of our leadership strategy and leadership conversations down to one thing it's you know, it's focused on that. So how do we remain true to ourselves but be aware and out front enough so that we're not disrupted by something that we don't see coming. It's one thing to be disrupted because you were allowing yourself to be disrupted. It's another thing to be sideswiped and that's I think where our prime paranoia is, knowing where we're headed and we're looking straight at that. But it's hard, especially as the business has grown. It’s worldwide and grown in its product categories and its offerings and its channels – everything, you know –there's a lot of fronts to be defending or innovating on. The art of choosing where to focus next and being okay with saying, “That was not the right decision. We better change this way.” We're still working at getting better there as well, too. So, we're incredibly optimistic about our potential for the future and at the same time incredibly paranoid and working so that we are not just disrupted.

Dave Franchino: I'm really struck by that the combination of optimism and paranoia might be an interesting recipe for Innovation.

Cynthia Bachmann: Well, I think I think it's okay to be a little bit on edge because it keeps you looking forward. I think the trick is to not look back. You know, don't look over your shoulder in a paranoid way, but use that to fuel how do we just get ahead further so we don't have to look back.

Dave Franchino: That's great. Maybe one last question, Kohler has had 150 to build a company with a really recognized brand and heritage and innovative culture, but I'm sure there are people listening to this with much younger companies that would you like to get there faster or probably don't have 150 years to work it out. What advice would you have to younger leaders? If you could look back at earlier in your career and things that you've learned that might help people listening to this develop and build a culture of innovation within their companies.

Cynthia Bachmann: If I just use my own career, I think I was so focused on being a manager early in my career that I think I should have taken more time to develop my natural leadership tendencies. I think innovation – business in general but innovation, particularly at a fast-paced company — takes leadership more than management. And I make that distinction you can manage your way right out of anything innovative. Yeah, you might be robust and have everything locked tight, but you're probably going to leave some innovation in the closet when you do that. So, it takes getting comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty to a certain extent. Try to know what you don't know but you can't always have that, too. So, I think as a young company or even young in a career, think about leadership versus management in your daily activity. You know, how would people describe you? Are you interacting with people in a way that you're drawing them out or are you interacting with them in a way that's causing them to go back and create a status report or a weekly activity report? I mean, those are just little things that we often get caught up with in a larger business. In today's world of agile practices, I'd like to think that that's gone by the wayside because everybody's together sort of every day and every way and that eliminates some of the need for some of the oversight. But I really think for entrepreneurs it's all about being in the mix. Don't sit in your office, get out and see what's going on. Be interested in what people are thinking and what they're doing. Participate in and show the way. I think innovation really comes from that.

Dave Franchino: That's fantastic, Cynthia. Thank you so very much. Congratulations on a fantastic career Kohler and on what you've been able to accomplish with that organization. Once again, today our guest is Cynthia Bachmann, Vice President of Engineering and Product Development and Kohler Company. This is Dave Franchino. Thanks very much for joining us.

Cynthia Bachmann: Thanks for having me.

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