Daring to Disrupt Centuries-Old Tradition
Interview with Romi Haan, founder, Haan Corporation
By Alice Bumgarner
Looking at it one way, Romi Haan simply invented a mop. If you look more deeply, though, you’ll see that Haan’s initial invention carved out a new product category in the marketplace, revolutionized the way South Korean women manage their homes, and helped break down gender bias in the South Korean business world.
That may have been what led The Wall Street Journal to name her, in 2008, as one of “The Top 50 Women to Watch.”
Her company, Haan Corporation, debuted 10 years ago with a steam mop that sanitizes floors with heat, not chemicals. Up until then, the centuries-old Ondol tradition —heated floors and one central room for eating, sleeping and gathering—essentially required women to get down on their hands and knees to wipe the floors daily. Haan envisioned a better way.
Her invention, both environmentally sound and efficient, overturned that tradition, giving Haan rock star status in her native country.
Since then, her company—no longer a startup—has branched out into making other appliances for the home and has started operations in the U.S.
Alice Bumgarner (AB):
What is the importance of innovation in today’s economic environment?
The environment changes so quickly. To survive you have to be innovative every day. So we have a motto: “Change every day.”
How is your “change every day” motto reflected at your workplace?
We’ve grown from a tiny little company to a $100 million company within a few years, so we’ve had to constantly innovate to be more efficient, while keeping the quality level that we want. That need to innovate touches every area of our business—manufacturing, R&D, quality control, sales, and especially new product development.
When I developed the steam cleaner, that was very innovative in Korea, because for hundreds of years, nobody had come up with a better idea for cleaning. It opened up a new market. From that perspective, I’m considered one of the most respected inventors in Korea.
We’re still working on ways to revolutionize the way women work. We’re very excited about a product we’ll introduce later this year that sterilizes everything in the kitchen, from food to cutting boards.
What’s the most exciting innovation you’ve been a part of?
Launching the first steam-cleaning mop. When I originally came up with the idea, I was an officer with the Minister of Education. I started talking to a businessman I knew, who told me I could develop it in six months for not much money—maybe $40,000. So I mortgaged the house and quit my job.
In the end, it took much longer and cost much more. The technology I initially tried didn’t work, so we had to scrap it and start over. That wasted the first year and a half. So when I was finally able to launch the product after three years of work ... I have no words for that feeling.
What is the most difficult problem you’ve had to solve?
In South Korea, there aren’t many women entrepreneurs, especially ones who are engineers. I don’t see many women walking around with drawings and technology ideas. So when I started out, people often made fun of me. They told me to go home and cook, instead of working on this stupid idea.
That was difficult. But it was the marketing side that was even harder.
Most of the decision makers and buyers within big chains in South Korea are male. They cannot see products from the consumer perspective, which is at least 50% women. I’d tell them about the steam cleaner, and the male buyer would say, “Why would people want to buy this? They already have a vacuum cleaner.” I’d explain for a half an hour—the vacuum clean sweeps, my cleaner mops—and in the end, the guy would repeat the same questions.
It was so difficult to overcome those prejudices. Eventually I was able to find some female buyers. They understood the product and decided to take it on. But for the first few years, we weren’t able to get our products anywhere major. Now there are more female decision makers, but almost 10 years ago, I didn’t have that luxury.
When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what do you recommend?
We do brainstorming workshops within a team or within a task force made up of people from different departments. But if we’re not able to solve the problem internally, we go outside for specialists who can provide a fresh perspective.
What are the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products?
We have a lot of barriers within ourselves. The foremost obstacle is when people confine themselves to their existing ideas. When we can’t see beyond the technologies we already know.
What innovation methodologies, theories, and training do you use or recommend to others?
We try to work with consultants in different areas, so we can introduce new techniques. For example, we recently had a consulting firm analyze and evaluate our production process. Right now we’re in the process of implementing those techniques. Last year it was our quality control team.
Do your innovations come from inside the company, outside sources, or a combination of the two?
We’re pretty open about our limitations, so we always welcome outside expertise.
Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks (such as IdeaConnection.com) that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?
Actually, I wasn’t very familiar, but I saw the web site and it’s interesting.
Are there any books on innovation that you recommend to others?
I’m really interested in Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Any other thoughts on innovation?
The first step for anyone who wants to innovate is to have an open mind, one that’s ready to catch ideas.
Outstanding interview with Romi Haan, founder of South Korea-based Haan Corporation.
Problems - People - Innovations
Problems – People – Solutions
Research, Development and Demonstration projects in developing countries have generated a variety of devices and systems for exploitation – for example, solar cookers, wind battery charges etc. In Innovation theory, this is a classic case of technology push, that is, technical solutions looking for a social application. Technology push innovations might of course be adopted if they happen to satisfy a real demand, or are heavily promoted. Success is much more likely, however if the needs, priorities and demands are studied before attempting to introduce a new technology or system. This is the demand pull approach to innovation.
Often identifying the right problem is difficult rather than finding a possible solution. People are better judges to identify the problems and since they benefit most by the solutions, they can contribute for finding the best solutions.
A novel and innovative scheme is suggested to achieve the above goal.
In developing countries the Government can advertise in the media seeking problems from the people in different disciplines like education, health, energy, industry etc. The problems received can be screened, studied and short-listed by a committee comprising government officials, experts, representatives from N.G.O’s etc. The short-listed problems can be re-advertised seeking solutions from people. The solutions received can be studied in detail and the best solutions given awards. To catch a fish the bait should be attractive enough. As such there should be sizeable incentive so that people can devote their talent and energies for finding solutions. As the saying goes ‘Anything can be done for a Dollar’. In this way the creative potential of the people can be tapped to the full and a thought process will be set in motion in the country. In India a general knowledge programme conducted by a Super Star on TV is a roaring success and children, youth and old-all alike have become addicted to get equipped with general knowledge so that they can try their luck for winning fabulous cash prizes.
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Posted by Anumakonda Jagadeesh on November 7, 2012