How Sealy Applied Design Thinking to Successfully Innovate a Mature Product

When the sales of your premium brand starts to plummet due to new energetic competitors entering the luxury segment of the market, what do you do? When this happened to the Stearns and Foster brand of the Sealy Corporation, the company decided to try a new approach: design thinking.

Like many companies that have been around a while, their R&D/product development department was a stand-alone group that operated in their own sort of ivory tower, bouncing bowling balls on mattresses, and such.  But the design thinking process approach they used with their Stearns and Foster problem called for a new way of working.

So, with the help of IDEO, engineers from Sealy’s headquarters were sent out with sales and marketing people to visit retailers in New York, Atlanta and Chicago.  They spoke to customers, interviewed retail sales clerks and they studied their competitors’ products not through the eyes of the technicians in the R&D facility, but through the eyes of the sales people who were talking to live buying customers on a daily basis.

The results?  Since the newly designed products were launched at the end of last year, they broke all previous sales records for the product line. From this success, the author outlines four lessons learned:

  • Immersion research is vital. You need to get into your customers’ heads and feel and see what they do.
  • A cross-functional approach involving marketing, product development and R&D was critical to Sealy’s success with this project.
  • Get the team away from the corporate bureaucracy to encourage freer thinking
  • Leaders needed to be willing to let go. The executive team can’t second guess or overrule their creative problem solving team, or its efforts will be stifled.

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