Airbus is one of the world‘s foremost aerospace companies, with 133,000 employees, manufacturing sites in France, Germany, Spain, the UK, the US, and China, and revenues of 58.76 billion EUR (2022).
In 2010, Tom Enders, Airbus CEO at the time, initiated efforts to enhance and structure the company’s innovation activities through an end-to-end innovation process. This led to the creation of the Airbus Innovation Team, dedicated to fueling the innovation engine with ideas, deploying an efficient process, and delivering results through innovation.
Here, we explore the steps Airbus took on its journey to create a highly successful innovation management program.
The Airbus Innovation Team recognized the importance of developing an open innovation platform for all employees to engage in collaboration and idea sharing. This platform became the digital space for innovation management and helped to promote the spirit of innovation across the organization.
Like many large organizations, document and knowledge management tools such as SharePoint and Wiki were already in place, with sporadic adoption and use. But a global system for managing innovation, with a defined process and workflow, didn’t exist.
Markus Durstewitz, Innovation Manager at Airbus, began searching for a tool that could scale to involve all Airbus employees over time. Airbus selected HYPE’s Enterprise platform based on its scalability and a high degree of flexibility, essential components for supporting the ambitions of the Airbus Innovation Program.
The Airbus Innovation Team’s innovation program includes four main components: a physical space for innovation; a community platform; methods and tools for innovation; and the resources of the team itself.
Airbus’s “IdeaSpace” platform was initially launched to a select group within the engineering area.
Idea campaigns were launched with sponsors who had a clear need, the budget to fund the follow-up action, and who would be responsible for implementing the selected ideas. This demonstrated to employees that activities on the platform were linked to specific needs and that ideas were taken seriously.
As well as focused, time-bound idea campaigns, the platform also includes “idea channels”. Each primary business function has an always-open idea channel, where users can submit related ideas and designated caretakers manage ideas through adoption.
In addition to IdeaSpace, the Airbus Innovation Team developed a number of additional resources, including physical spaces for workshops, prototyping labs, recommended methods and tools for innovation management, workshops for sprints (a dedicated period of time in which a set amount of work will be completed on a project), and boot camps, to help employees mature their ideas and foster collaboration.
Airbus used a collaborative innovation canvas as a simple way to map out the key components of an innovation management platform.
The canvas focuses on three main aspects: alignment (with the larger strategic goals around innovation); people (the stakeholders, advocates, and general audience); and process (selecting, funding, and tracking ideas). The canvas captures the broad components of the innovation program and enables everybody involved to easily understand and share the goals and methods of the innovation program.
Although innovation has always been at the core of the Airbus strategy, before IdeaSpace, innovation-focused work across the company often happened in an unstructured or isolated way. The Airbus Innovation Team created a structured end-to-end innovation process to enable all functions to manage their innovations and to better explore ideas and collaborate cross-functionally. Yann Barbaux was appointed as Chief Innovation Officer in 2013 to oversee this initiative, with the team reporting directly to the CEO.
This end-to-end approach has three key components:
Engagement and adoption of the IdeaSpace platform at Airbus has always been strong, but it’s equally important for Airbus that ideas move all the way through to implementation and that innovation is visibly taking place throughout the company. IdeaSpace records innovation activity and is transparent across the organization, which in turn has built belief in the Airbus innovation team’s capability, the innovation community, and the IdeaSpace platform itself. The ever-growing use and impact of idea campaigns and channels highlight how successful IdeaSpace has proved since its launch.
Sponsors are key individuals who champion the innovation program at Airbus. Typically, sponsors request the idea campaigns that are managed by the Airbus Innovation Team.
Airbus sponsors must complete a checklist before a campaign can be launched, as well as provide predefined evaluation criteria and a “problem statement”. The sponsor must also provide one person fully dedicated to facilitating the campaign. At the end of each campaign, a “lessons learned” document is written to help improve future campaigns.
The Airbus Innovation Team reports directly to the Chief Innovation Officer, who, in turn, reports to the CEO. This is a critical factor in the success of the innovation program because it immediately lends credibility, raises the profile of the activities, and can make communications easier.
IdeaSpace is currently open to 133,000 employees across the whole Airbus Group. Sponsors can choose whether to direct their idea campaigns to selected groups or individuals or to the entire company.
Campaigns often benefit from involving employees across different areas to bring their different perspectives and enhance collaboration. This is the essence of innovation at large organizations.
The Airbus Innovation Team communicates about specific activities, such as idea campaigns, rather than giving a generic push to the innovation platform, to focus attention on how employees can contribute immediately. Here are some examples of the team’s communications:
The Airbus Innovation Team has identified a number of tips for other innovation managers to evaluate ideas and create scalable processes within their innovation programs:
Initially, the Airbus Innovation Team looked for ideas targeting incremental innovations, which could quickly be implemented. This approach allowed them to build momentum and credibility.
Now, the focus has switched to 10x ROI projects with a big impact, in other words, on disruptive innovations.
Because of its iterative nature, a “design-thinking” approach has become central to the innovation process at Airbus. Iterative prototyping is encouraged at every stage of the implementation process.
While we often think of a prototype as something tangible, in the context of the innovation process, it can take many forms, for example, a slide deck, a paper figure, or a 3D-printed design. The point is to focus on user insights, gaining feedback, and, where necessary, adapting the idea to more closely meet the nature of the problem.
When it comes to measuring the success of an innovation program, it’s important to use innovation-specific KPIs, rather than the KPIs used to measure operational success. This approach to KPIs involves setting incentives for culture change that encourage employees to accept and generate new ideas as well as helping the maturation and implementation of these ideas.
At Airbus, idea campaigns and innovation channels are measured according, among other things, to activity (the volume of ideas, comments, and contributors) and impact (a score made up of points based on the progression of ideas through the stages toward implementation). The priority is to ensure a high level of activity, in terms of the number of ideas and comments submitted, and the right speed of implementation of ideas (where impact = number of gates passed or ideas progressed.
Although Airbus tracks many other indicators, these activity and impact scores are used to create a monthly “Innovation Scorecard”. The scorecards make it easy for the Airbus Innovation team to monitor global activity; if a channel is showing high scores on impact, they will ask why, and what can be learned from that?
Similarly, if a channel is showing low activity levels, there might be a problem that needs addressing. In either case, the aim is to find new approaches that can be shared with all channel owners. To maintain trust and credibility in the platform, transparency is key. That’s why the scorecards are visible to everybody in the community.