kick its e-business initiatives into high gear, GE told its unit chiefs
to save their businesses by figuring out how to kill them.
BY MERIDITH LEVINSON
Your e-business applications should focus on how your customers can grow
their business, streamline processes or reduce costs.
Speed Matters Make sure what you're offering customers via the Web, whether they're B2B or B2C, is faster, cheaper and better than any other delivery mechanism.
Value New Internet services should enhance value for existing customers rather than simply reaching new ones.
Find It Online
EXECUTIVES LIKE to conceive their company's future through
strategic-planning exercises. Not Jack Welch. For him, strategic
planning is too safe, too theoretical. Instead, Welch had his business
units envision how the future could hurt them. He called the exercise
Destroy Your Business (DYB).
The DYB moniker captures the urgency that spread like atomic fallout throughout the Fairfield, Conn.-based company after Welch mandated that General Electric transform itself into an e-business in January 1999. This was no small feat for a technology, services and manufacturing company with a 122-year-old brick-and-mortar legacy and more than three dozen businesses spread across 100 countries. Welch knew that hundreds of guerrilla companies (mostly dotcoms) were in the process of trying to destroy GE's business models, and if his company didn't identify its weaknesses then someone else would.
To quantify the vulnerabilities, DYB was instituted in every GE business unit. Each unit assembled a cross-functional team that benchmarked competitors and examined how their businesses operate, the products and services they offered, and the economics of ordering through the Web versus ordering through the sales force and call centers. The teams' goal was to present GE's top executives with a hypothetical Internet-based business plan that a competitor could use to erode GE's customerbase. In addition, the teams proposed how they would change their existing business model in response to these threats. This latter part of the exercise came to be known as GYB—Grow Your Business—because its objective was to find fresh ways to reach new customers and better serve existing ones.
The exercise came not a second too late for some of GE's business units. GE executives in the plastics and medical systems businesses, for instance, were concerned that they would be forced to join the rapidly proliferating B2B exchanges where their products and services would be commoditized. But the exercise resulted in retooled websites, new deals with suppliers and partners, new markets and better service. "When we have an initiative around here, it becomes an all-consuming thing," says Gary Reiner, GE's 45-year-old senior vice president and CIO.
Reiner served as the sounding board for all of GE's e-commerce leaders during the DYB process, bringing them together to share best practices. "We viewed e-commerce with a lot of trepidation," he says. "We thought [online marketplaces]
Your company may not have the resources to turn on a dime the way GE did. But even if you can't change now, you can at least get a sense of what you're in for by doing your own version of DYB. Chances are, if a company is crazy and ambitious enough to figure out how it can destroy GE's $122 billion business, there are probably 10 others that are scheming against your company. Read on to learn about the best practices that emerged from DYB/GYB in three of GE's businesses: plastics, appliances and medical systems.
IT BENDS, BUT IT DOESN'T BREAK:
"We have a rule here: Don't put something on the Internet unless it has a value proposition that is better than over the phone," advises Gerry Podesta, general manager of e-commerce for GE Plastics in Pittsfield, Mass.
He should know. GE Plastics' product catalog has been on the Web since 1995, and the company has been conducting transactions on GEPlastics.com since 1997. Podesta understands how difficult it is to ensure that a customer can find what he's looking for on the website faster than he could get the same information over the phone. In 1999, GEPlastics.com's strong sales of $2 million to $3 million a week were partly a result of using the phone test to vet online business processes.
Considering those sales figures, it would be safe to assume that GE Plastics, which manufactures the raw plastics used in products like cell phones and auto parts, wouldn't have much to learn when it started the DYB exercise in June 1999. But it did. Aggregators like PlasticsNet.com, which began transacting business on its site that year, were springing up all over the place. Revenue wasn't the issue here—of course GE had the edge. This would, however, be a duel of business models. Rather than stand pat, GE Plastics realized it would need to relaunch its website with more features and enhanced functionality to compete with some of the more innovative models out there.
The business that could destroy them would have a product catalog, discussion forums and a strong transaction capability on its website. Though GEPlastics.com's commerce capabilities offered a competitive advantage over PlasticsNet, the GE site lacked a community feel—something that PlasticsNet had been
By looking only at websites in his own industry, Podesta knew he would not be able to create something that would blow away the competition. So DYB team members began surfing consumer sites for inspiration, particularly auto manufacturers' sites, where visitors could use configuration tools to customize their cars.
Podesta and his team thought that they could bring customization to their customers (primarily product design engineers) by giving them advice on how plastics could best be used. Enhancing its site with smart technology would allow these engineers to design their products with GE's materials while reaching a much wider audience than the field sales force ever could on foot.
To develop the technology that would let engineers test different materials, GE Plastics put together a design engineering team (separate from the DYB team) consisting of individuals from IT, engineering and R&D. The group spent four months, beginning in October 1999, researching the services GE Plastics provided its customers and sifting through 30 years' worth of information on the properties of the materials it manufactures. From these studies, the team built the engineering design center of GEPlastics.com, which launched in February 2000.
Much of the technology on the site comes from the PC applications that sales people showed off when visiting customers. The most popular of these, the data sheet, helps product engineers determine a material's properties—like tensile strength, modulus and melting point. Having the PC applications drastically reduced the development time for the Web tools, but it wasn't a slam dunk. The IT challenge in getting them online, says Podesta, was first Web-enabling the PC formats and then creating databases of material properties to power the online features.
The new tools let product engineers get a sense of which materials they should use and how much they will cost. For example, a product engineer at a cell phone manufacturer plugs the dimensions of his product into GE Plastics' system and selects four different materials he's interested in using. GE's system then helps him determine how many molds he has to build to make a part. "When he's done in a few hours," says Podesta, "he has a fairly extensive matrix of what products would work and a ballpark figure on costs. It gives him an enormous head start on the process of designing the product."
For three decades, GE Plastics engineers had been helping customers select the right materials for their products, in spite of the fact that GE Plastics' primary business is manufacturing, not services. "In the end, we're doing design assistance," says Podesta. "It's a value-added service; it's not a part of the key sale. For us to be able to touch thousands of customers online rather than hundreds of customers [with the field sales force] is a big win for us."
Service might not be its primary business, but all of GE—not just plastics—is realizing that in order to increase customer loyalty, value-added services are an increasingly important way for the company to differentiate itself from competitors, and perhaps the only way it can stay ahead in commodity businesses like plastics.
NUKING THE SUPPLY CHAIN:
"What would our business model look like if we were to go around the partners between us and the end consumer?" asks Joe De-Angelo, vice president of e-business for GE Appliances, explaining his business unit's No. 1 concern during the DYB/GYB process.
For the $5.6 billion business in Louisville, Ky., the big DYB issue wasn't whether aggregators would hurt appliance retailers, it was whether its primary competitors—Maytag, Whirlpool and Frigidaire—would cut retailers out of the picture entirely. Before the Internet, these four manufacturers, which each own 25 percent of the appliance market, had only one way to bring their products to market: through large retailers like Home Depot and small mom-and-pop appliance stores. The Internet threatened to fragment that traditional model and make GE appliances commodities on big retail and auction sites. As part of the DYB exercise, GE Appliances had to ask itself how it could use the new Internet channel to maintain consumers' awareness of the GE brand without alienating GE's retail partners or cannibalising existing channels.
GE spent years during the early part of the '90s perfecting its logistics system through a rigorous quality initiative known as Six Sigma. Implemented companywide, Six Sigma was an attempt to eliminate inefficiencies in GE's processes. DeAngelo led the Six Sigma initiative before becoming the vice president of e-biz for GE Appliances—his team focused on ways to leverage GE Appliances' edge in logistics during the DYB exercise. "We know that [order fulfillment and delivery is] an element of our business model that the other guys don't have, and we're going to build off that," he says. "We are able to take products from our factories and get them shipped anywhere in the United States virtually overnight on a cost-effective basis," DeAngelo adds.
But as good as the system is, Reiner thinks Web customers will expect better, given the instant gratification of software downloads and book purchases that consumers get on the Web. "We're sensing that customer expectations are higher when they order over the Web than when they order over the phone," says CIO Reiner. "We are using Six Sigma in every one of our businesses to improve the fulfillment capability."
DeAngelo started DYB by looking at whether GE Appliances could deliver appliances directly into consumers' hands, using the company's most valuable asset—the retailers—as a sort of go-between. At the heart of the new system is a point-of-sale (POS) terminal that is installed at a Home Depot. When customers want to buy a GE fridge, they enter the order into the POS system, which is connected to GE's inventory and distribution systems. It allows consumers to buy appliances directly from GE through Home Depot and schedule an appointment to have the refrigerator delivered and installed at the customers' convenience. Home Depot gets a cut of the action and stays happy—really happy, according to DeAngelo.
"This gets retailers out of the game of carrying inventory on their floors," he says. "[Home Depot] was sucking up floor space with inventory, and we were able to free up that space. What we basically did was interconnect and take [the excess inventory] out of the traditional retail model to make it a better shopping experience for the consumer and a better process experience for the retailer." By helping them reduce the amount of inventory they carry in their stores and warehouses, GE Appliances helps its retailers cut their costs.
"It's a format that we can use everyplace," notes DeAngelo. Indeed, GE uses essentially the same system for its virtual stores on NBC's portal Snap.com and NBCi's Xoom.com. "We've been in the process of selling appliances over our corporate intranet to GE employees for several months. That enabled us to create store capabilities that we can utilize anyplace," he says.
GE Medical Systems
"Individually, they were just popcorn stands," says GE Medical Systems CIO Joe Eckroth, referring to online information aggregators—such as Neoforma, MediBuy, WebMD and Healtheon—that hit his radar screen when his business embarked on DYB in early 1999.
Eckroth could afford to be flippant at the time. GE Medical Systems, the $6.2 billion Waukesha, Wis.-based manufacturer of MRI, CT scan, ultrasound and mammography equipment, was leading its industry and was selling, as it always had, directly to doctors and medical technicians.
But then the popcorn stands started popping—they grew quickly, had frighteningly large market caps and the money to do just about anything they wanted. "What got scary was when they started making partnerships and when WebMD and Healtheon actually merged together," Eckroth says.
Suddenly, Medical Systems became lost inside a cloud of undifferentiated medical equipment providers. Sites such as WebMD were aggregating unbiased information about all companies like GE Medical Systems, including its traditional OEM competitors Toshiba and Siemens, together on a single website. The sites reached both current GE customers and untapped prospects. To these buyers, GE looked like just another vendor.
A troubling scenario, to say the least. But if GE Medical Systems could offer the same level of service on the Web that its salespeople provided in person, and could transfer its system for fulfilling orders to the Internet, the equipment manufacturer could ensure its leadership position by offering another way to serve customers and attract new ones.
For instance, the aggregators auctioned used medical equipment on their sites. If Neoforma could do it, the DYB team surmised, GE Medical Systems could do it better because of its logistics capability. The Web auctions would also allow GE Medical Systems to reach formerly untapped markets: smaller domestic clinics and hospitals in Third World countries that don't have the money to spend on state-of-the-art stuff. "E-commerce opened up a whole new way for us to touch our customers, while the sales guys are still out there continuing to grow their marketspace."
Along the way, Eckroth and his team developed unique services specifically for the Internet. One such service allows medical technicians to download and test software for upgrading their MRIs off GEMedicalSystems.com. If they like it after the 30-day trial period, they can buy it. GE Medical Systems can now also monitor the productivity of its customers' equipment in real-time via the Web; so if a machine goes down, GE Medical Systems' specialists are aware of the problem and can immediately work to bring it back up. On top of the real-time monitoring, GE Medical Systems also posts diagnostic information such as the run rate and throughput of a machine online, which customers can access every morning through their personalized webpages, to find out whether their machines are running at capacity. "We offer a full range of solutions that go beyond online transactions," says Eckroth. "These are all big productivity adds for the hospital."
Web-enabling services that enhance the productivity of customers is key to all GYB strategies. Take Tip TV, Medical Systems' satellite television network that broadcasts programs to teach doctors and clinicians how to use GE equipment to perform medical procedures. Eckroth's crew made the network accessible from any browser.
Before it went on the Web, doctors and clinicians had to sign up to attend a Tip TV class six weeks prior to ensure a spot. After the class, they would have to wait another several weeks before they received the results of their exams.
Tip TV went online at the end of December 1999. Doctors can now sign up for Web-based classes online anytime, take tests in
"The Internet really wouldn't have destroyed our business, but the economics and the consolidation in health care would have," says Eckroth. "The Web helps us find a brand-new avenue to keep our business alive and to continue to make money out of it."
DYB MEANS DO IT YOURSELF,
Through DYB, GE's business units confronted risks and threats head on, transforming them into opportunities to open new markets, reach more customers, enhance services and develop technologies that could be applied across all businesses.
Rather than striking fear throughout the company, DYB helped give GE's old-line businesses new confidence that they can survive and thrive in the face of the Internet onslaught. "What we have since found is that aggregators in most of the businesses in which we play are not going to survive," says Reiner. The reason is that most industries have only a few big suppliers. If one of the big players doesn't play, the aggregator will lose credibility fast. When the aggregator doesn't aggregate everyone, it doesn't add much value.
The Internet hasn't changed the basic wants of customers, argues Reiner. "We concluded that the biggest thing customers wanted was fulfilment and brand. An aggregator can provide neither of those. PlasticsNet is a website. They've got nothing else but that."
CIO Staff Writer Meridith Levinson was impressed by DYB. Were you? E-mail her at email@example.com.
CIO Magazine - July 15, 2000
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