This energy company launched a campaign to boost employee innovation and implementation.
Solution: A company-wide cultural transformation campaign to nurture innovation
Business impact highlight: During a four-year period, the company rolled out 310 new innovation projects and registered 20 new patents.
An organization that has been in business for 160 years is bound to encounter numerous challenges from both external and internal sources. In addition to the typical growth demands of the saturated energy market, Towngas—one of the largest energy suppliers in Hong Kong—must meet ever-rising service and safety standards required from its partners and clients. The company also has escalating expectations from investors and the community around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance.
To meet market demand, improve quality of service and safety, and support ESG advancements, Towngas must accelerate its use of automation and digital tools. Like other leading companies, Towngas likewise must learn how to leverage the development of Smart Cities—the application of networks, data, and other emerging technologies to improve the quality of life for citizens, protect the environment, and lower its costs—as a catalyst for innovation and growth.
With a workforce of about 53,000 employees, the company's key challenges on its internal front revolve around recruiting and retaining talent. For example, Towngas faces a steady shortage of staff for manual roles, such as frontline workers who visit residences to read gas meters.
Additionally, it faces challenges recruiting young talent who want to work for employers that offer them ample opportunities to grow their skills and careers and have values similar to their own such as support for environmental issues.
Innovation is an essential tool that businesses can use to address such challenges, and it has been a key element to the company's continuous growth. To cultivate a widespread culture of innovation even further throughout the organization, Towngas launched the G=ixi campaign in 2017.
The name refers to the idea that growth equals innovation multiplied by implementation. It is a corporate-wide cultural transformation campaign that promotes an innovative mindset among Towngas's workforce and provides a performance framework for staff to unleash their potential to innovate and create impact in their day-to-day work.
Specifically, the campaign sets out to facilitate innovation x implementation among staff through four distinct actions: think, jam, act, and feel.
Think refers to training and simulations so that staff think through business trends, emerging technologies, and design thinking. Specific projects present staff with opportunities to apply what they've learned and put their new ideas into action.
Jam refers to communities of practice where employees can share in team learning experiences and brainstorm new ideas through online collaboration tools such as Yammer, Facebook, and WeChat.
The company extracts relevant content from social media and other sources and publishes them in the G-ixi newsletter called Innovation Headlines, which Towngas distributes to all staff in Hong Kong and mainland China. As an incentive and to boost engagement, the company rewards cash coupons to staff who provide posts with the most likes.
Act refers to the G=ixi Lab, which focuses on prototyping new solutions, and the innovation funding to support experimenting and promising ideas.
The G=ixi Lab is open for all staff to book and use. It contains facilities, such as 3D printers, with gas and power supplies.
Act also covers the Annual Managing Director's Award for new business ideas. Every year, staff can form teams and submit innovative proposals around a predetermined theme.
Shortlisted teams present their proposals to the top management, and winners receive support for implementation. For example, a recent champion team proposed a new business of laundry services powered by gas supplies.
Feel refers to cultivating a fun, relaxing atmosphere with a "no fear" mindset so staff can generate ideas. In particular, Towngas established a Hall of Innovation to showcase and recognize staff innovation ideas and projects. Additionally, the company includes in the patent application the names of key contributing employees to an innovation.
Like any major change initiative, success requires senior management's support. The managing director initiated the G=ixi formula, and the executive committee members backed it. Towngas then created the strategy and innovation department (SID).
The company mobilized existing staff with commitment to and experience in innovation management to join the team. Any employee with passion and innovative ideas can apply for funding to implement their innovations; SID monitors and facilitates the progress.
SID was charged with nurturing interdepartmental collaboration. The department started by tapping other department managers to help pinpoint innovation opportunities as well as ensure those opportunities are in line with overall corporate strategy.
Under SID, the company established the Continuing Transformation Office, with managers from various business lines tasked with chairing the group on a two-year rotation. The limited tenure is intended to ensure fresh ideas for innovation and diverse business needs are continuously brought to light.
The C-suite isn't the only field that needs buy-in and input for a widespread culture transformation to succeed. Middle managers and individual contributors must be able to see how a culture of innovation will benefit their performance, and they need to believe they have opportunities to generate opportunities to innovate.
To get more teams on board, the managing director used town hall meetings to share and gather information, inviting leaders from Hong Kong and major locations in mainland China to participate and discuss the benefits and rationale behind the G=ixi campaign.
Cultivating innovation skills, unleashing potential
A wide spectrum of learning, engagement, and recognition initiatives supported the campaign to enhance the skills, knowledge, and capabilities required to boost innovation within the company. To succeed, the campaign had three key elements.
ixi profiles. The right match of people to roles is essential for any organization to achieve performance outcomes and unleash staff potential. Towngas' HR function initiated a process for developing precise G=ixi–related staff profiles. The team defined ixi attributes: 10 attributes for innovation (such as thinking outside the box, striving for change, and taking risks) and 10 for implementation (such as social and political acumen, persistence, and acting swiftly).
The team then evaluated managers on their strengths of innovation and implementation through the 20 attributes. Next, it generated ixi strength profiles for individual managers and functional departments.
Department leaders could review whether the team's profile fit their team's requirements. If not, leaders could deploy alternative staff to suitable positions or review whether more training and development efforts would strengthen the attributes and maximize the individual contributor's and team's performance.
ixi performance management. It was imperative that Towngas's performance management system aligned with principles of the G=ixi campaign. The HR team's role is to ensure employee appraisals cover specific competencies relevant to the ixi attributes and indicate whether employees are demonstrating real innovation (for example, exhibiting an entrepreneurial spirit) and implementation (such as executing plans and organizing projects effectively).
ixi training. The L&D team took the lead in designing and delivering a wide range of training programs, both face-to-face and online, that help employees grow skills such as value innovation, acting with agility, and creative problem solving—the capabilities needed to foster innovation and agility in employees' daily workflow as well as create new business opportunities.
By all accounts, G=ixi has helped an innovative culture take root at Towngas. In Hong Kong, the company recorded more than 3,800 participants for the G=ixi learning and engagement activities each year between 2017 and 2021. Hong Kong staff numbered around 2,500. Overall, that equates to a significant average of 14,240 learning hours per year on G=ixi training and learning experiences
More importantly, 40 percent of staff in Hong Kong formed teams to initiate and implement innovation projects. Towngas launched more than 310 new innovation projects between 2017 and 2020, with a significant portion focused on improving customer service practices or exploring automation and digital options. Those innovations eased frontline staff's workload by lessening acute demand for manual work and repetitive tasks.
Additionally, the company registered 20 new patents during the first four years of the G=ixi culture transformation campaign, compared to 70 throughout the company's 160-year history.
What's more, among the top-tier innovators—staff who received innovation funding to pursue their proposal and those who have their innovation exhibited in the Hall of Innovation—the retention rate reached more than 90 percent, and the promotion rate is above 60 percent.
Towngas investors also reaped significant returns. For example, the company has been able to achieve lower costs by applying digitalization and automation more widely, which has saved the company on staffing hours. And innovative processes and tools have enhanced efficiency, safety, and reliability for employees and customers. In total, the return on investment was 912 percent over the campaign's four years.
Finally, the company has made a notable societal impact. Towngas believes that moving toward a sustainable future through its environmental performance, corporate governance, social good, community works, and equal opportunity is not only good for the environment and society but also for creating economic value for the business.
Green innovation projects have helped the company protect the environment while also providing customer convenience. Case in point: The new water heater hydropower generator means customers do not need to replace as many batteries, which results in the potential reduction of 1.6 million batteries per year in Hong Kong.
Green energy innovations contributed positively to the company's ESG performance, elevating its ranking in three sustainability indexes in Hong Kong, Greater Bay Areas, and Greater China in 2021, which is a major boost to the company's brand and bottom line.
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.