4/10/12 - procter and gamble invents a new mop

Editor's Note: "Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer was pulled from retailers following the disclosure that the author fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan.

In today's excerpt - creative failure and the challenge of inventing a new floor cleaner:

"Procter and Gamble had a problem: it needed a new floor cleaner. In the 1980s, the company had pioneered one lucrative consumer product after another, from pull-up diapers to anti-dandruff sham­poo. It had developed color-safe detergent and designed a quilted paper towel that could absorb 85 percent more liquid than other paper towels. These innovations weren't lucky accidents: Procter and Gamble was deeply invested in research and development. At the time, the corporation had more scientists on staff than any other company in the world, more PhDs than the faculties of MIT, UC-Berkeley, and Harvard combined.

"And yet, despite the best efforts of the chemists in the house­hold-cleaning division, there were no new floor products in the pipeline. The company was still selling the same lemon-scented detergents and cloth mops; consumers were still sweeping up their kitchens using wooden brooms and metal dustpans. The rea­son for this creative failure was simple: it was extremely difficult to make a stronger floor cleaner that didn't also damage the floor. Although Procter and Gamble had invested millions of dollars in

a new generation of soaps, these products tended to fail during the rigorous testing phase, as they peeled off wood varnishes and irritated delicate skin. The chemists assumed that they had ex­hausted the chemical possibilities.

"That's when Procter and Gamble decided to try a new ap­proach. The company outsourced its innovation needs to Con­tinuum, a design firm with offices in Boston and Los Angeles. 'I think P and G came to us because their scientists were telling them to give up,' says Harry West, a leader on the soap team and now Continuum's CEO. 'So they told us to think crazy, to try to come up with something that all those chemists couldn't.'

"But the Continuum designers didn't begin with molecules. They didn't spend time in the lab worrying about the chemistry of soap. Instead, they visited people's homes and watched dozens of them engage in the tedious ritual of floor cleaning. The designers took detailed notes on the vacuuming of carpets and the sweep­ing of kitchens. When the notes weren't enough, they set up video cameras in living rooms. 'This is about the most boring footage you can imagine,' West says. 'It's movies of mopping, for God's sake. And we had to watch hundreds of hours of it.' ...

"Unfortunately, the Continuum designers couldn't think of a better cleaning method. It seemed like an impossible challenge. Perhaps floor cleaning was destined to be an inefficient chore.

'In desperation, the team returned to making house visits, hoping for some errant inspiration. One day, the designers were watching an elderly woman sweep some coffee grounds off the kitchen floor. She got out her hand broom and carefully brushed the grounds into a dustpan. But then something interesting hap­pened. After the woman was done sweeping, she wet a paper towel and wiped it over the linoleum, picking up the last bits of spilled coffee. Although everyone on the Continuum team had done the same thing countless times before, this particular piece of dirty paper led to a revelation.

"What the designers saw in that paper towel was the possibil­ity of a disposable cleaning surface. 'All of a sudden, we realized what needed to be done,' says Don Buchner, a Continuum vice president. 'We needed to invent a spot cleaner that people could just throw away. No more cleaning mop heads, no more bending over in the bathtub, no more buckets of dirty water. That was our big idea.' ... [After initial rejection by both P and G management and consumers in focus groups, positive reaction by consumers using prototypes convined P and G to proceed.] Tests by Procter and Gamble demonstrated that the new product cleaned the floor far better than sponge mops, string mops, or any other kinds of mops. According to the corporate sci­entists, the 'tissue on a stick' was one of the most effective floor cleaners ever invented. ...

"Numerous imitators and spinoffs have since been introduced, but the orig­inal device continues to dominate the post-mop market, taking up an ever greater share of the supermarket aisle. Its name is the Swiffer."


Jonah Lehrer


Imagine: How Creativity Works


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2012 by Jonah Lehrer


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