There is no consistent definition of innovation. Every industry and every department perceive it differently. How would you define innovation with respect to your position as Head of R&D at Siemens Healthineers?
Uwe Rückl: Innovations should enable your customers do their tasks more easier, cost efficient or just enable them to do what they could not do before. This is why we at Siemens Healthineers want to support healthcare providers, our customers, to deliver better outcomes at lower costs.
A classical general definition of innovation includes the combination of technology and business. In this regard, innovation can comprise push effects in terms of new technology, but also pull effects with coming from markets and competitors. Concerning push effects, it is important to have a good overview of the latest technology and the developments in different technology fields and asks the question what customer pain points you can solve with new technologies. There is not an optimal mix of push-pull factors for all companies. For us at the moment, I would expect that many innovations are based on some 70% push and some 30% pull factors. What is important for us is to minimize time to feedback e.g. having pilot customers in every region that helps us to understand their business even better as well as getting fast and reliable feedback on new approaches. An example of a technology push is our cinematic rendering technology which is illustrated in the following video:
Based on your multi-year experience in managing R&D in China, do you see any particular strengths of developing in China relative to Western regions, such as Europe and the US? Are there specific competencies of Chinese engineers that are hard to find in Western engineers?
Our usual assumption that Chinese engineers would not be able to develop real innovations is long over. We have seen the end of cheap manufacturing but also pure outsourcing strategies in China. Instead, there have been several programs to increase the quantity, but also the quality of innovations in China. In terms of patents, for example, not only the number of patent applications and patent citations has been increased dramatically.
If we take the T model of competencies as an illustration, many Western engineers excel at the vertical stroke of the T with very deep knowledge in one field of technology. Many Chinese engineers excel at the horizontal stroke of the T based on their ability to bring together applications and technologies from several different technology fields – connecting the dots for applications serving especially the Chinese needs and focusing on local pain points. As a consequence, China seems to be particularly good at fast business innovation. For instance, Alibaba and Baidu have successfully developed a number of business innovations which integrated multiple ideas for great customer experience.
In a similar example, WeChat first started with similar offers as Western companies, but then added completely novel functionalities to serve local needs. What is helpful in this regard is that the Chinese market appears to be more open to innovations, especially mobile and interconnected solutions. In addition, many decision makers are younger on average that in Western companies. Thus, there is a strong market for specific and exciting innovations in China which you can experience every day especially in Tier 1 Cities like Shanghai or Beijing.
How important is the trend towards digital transformation for your R&D activities and especially for the development of new business models? What will be future USPs in the context of ‘software as a service‘ with regard to your interaction with medical doctors and patients?
Simply put, we are also a software company – and not only a product company anymore. We plan to increasingly focus on services, and we have a strong commitment to this strategy in terms of innovation, investment but also in increasing special competencies. Of course, a stronger focus on services is partly implemented already, with services being an important part of our product solutions. An example is predictive maintenance. A more novel topic for our service business would be clinical decision support as a part of our offerings.
With a look to the future, we see a strong increase in applications related to machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data analysis, which are key to pattern recognition in computed tomography. Many innovations in these fields are strongly driven by software.
Focusing on the human dimension in digital transformation, which future requirements do you see in terms of developing new competencies and managing R&D teams?
First of all, we need the experts and the competencies that have greatly contributed to our success in recent years and decades. What we also need to do, however, is extending this essential expertise by developing deeper competencies in artificial intelligence, machine learning and other data driven fields. This need for new competencies is also accepted across the organization. In this regard, we are currently undergoing a lean transition across the whole company because the way we develop products and innovation but also our leadership and management styles has to change. We will have a more coaching, delegating management style where the experts in the projects can and should make the final technical decision on their own and therefore becoming much faster.
For example, project managers and department managers will not be able to be experts in all relevant fields. Instead, these persons will focus more strongly on the innovation radar with a view towards the future, taking care about synergies and platform aspects and creating a learning environment. Of course, quality, cost and time will continue to be key success parameters, but managers will have a stronger coaching role. Instead of pure top down leadership, the bottom up perspective is essential because empowering multiple experts will strengthen the speed of innovation processes considerably. In this regard, a positive culture of failure is key, and its everyday implementation is an opportunity and a challenge at the same time.
What is your personal goal for the next year or so regarding innovation?
At Siemens Healthineers, we build the best CT scanners in the world, and we want to keep this position and even extend our advantage in the future. It would be completely wrong to only rely on what we have achieved so far. Instead, we have to continue to go the extra mile to remain innovative in the future. We definitely have to avoid entering any kind of comfort zone and complacency. Therefore, you have to continuously question your own assumptions, create a culture where failure is considered a learning opportunity and open up additional opportunities based on new perspectives.
About the interviewee:
Uwe Rückl is Head of Research and Development at Siemens Healthineers, Diagnostic Imaging, Computed Tomography.
Degree in applied computer science “Diplom Informatiker (FH)”
1995 – Software-Developer, Project Manager and Software-Architect
2004 – Department Manager, Energy Automation, Berlin, Germany
2009 – Head of R&D Energy Automation, Nanjing, China
2012 – Head of Research, Corporate Technology, Beijing, China
2015 – Global Head of R&D for Computed Tomography, Forchheim, Germany