KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is not only one of the world’s oldest airlines; it is also one of the most forward-thinking. Today, despite the global uncertainty created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and widespread cost-cutting initiatives across the industry, innovation remains as important as ever to the carrier.
Within the Transformation Office sits the Radical Innovation Team, which is responsible for orchestrating the KLM innovation ecosystem, co-creating innovation strategy, and accelerating innovation projects that focus on the most strategically important topics for the business.
“You don’t do innovation at the head office, on the eighth floor, behind your laptop; you do it where the operation is and with the people who are working there,” KLM’s Arlette van der Veer, Project Manager Radical Innovation, explains to FTE. “We have a lot of innovative colleagues throughout the company – they are scattered throughout all the different divisions and departments.”
Innovation ecosystem methodology
Much of the innovation that is happening within the airline is driven by three methods – agile lean, design thinking and scrum – but the innovation ecosystem itself helps to ensure that innovation is not carried out in siloes, under the radar of other teams or departments. “Innovation ecosystem methodology is really the glue to make a coherent visualisation of all the innovation present, of all the technologies and skills available, and then you can orchestrate it and a lot of good things happen from it. If you’re good at knowledge sharing the chances of making the right product and the right innovation becomes much larger… An innovation ecosystem shows you where the technology is, where the innovation hubs are, and it shows where you can work together.”
One example of how the development of an organisation-wide innovation ecosystem is delivering valuable results can be found in the field of additive manufacturing. Van der Veer explains: “Within engineering and maintenance, additive manufacturing started within Engine Services. However, it also started in Component Services, but these people didn’t cooperate with each other and they weren’t aware of the fact that they were working with the same technology. So, an innovation ecosystem shows the synergies possible between colleagues, between departments, on topics and innovation projects.”
When the Radical Innovation Team realised that there was no additive manufacturing vision in place across Engineering & Maintenance, action was quickly taken. They hosted additive manufacturing vision workshops per department, which created a lot of data and a long wish list. This information was then consolidated and the team organised a workshop for the key management in Engineering & Maintenance. As the management already knew the wishes of each of the departments, within just three hours they agreed upon an additive manufacturing vision for the whole of KLM Engineering & Maintenance. In addition, they identified that they needed to prioritise one thing above all else; building 3D design capability within the business.
Since then, a series of projects have been successfully completed, perhaps most notably the implementation of a circular additive manufacturing process which uses recycled plastic bottles from KLM flights to ultimately create and print tools for aircraft maintenance. This is just one example but similar success stories exist across various departments.
The Radical Innovation Team has also developed the Innovation Ecosystem SharePoint, which will be launched in mid-September. This online one-stop-shop provides the KLM workforce with information on which themes and technologies are currently being explored, tested and implemented. Ranging from robotic process automation to drones, the “knowledge base”, as van der Veer describes it, is wide ranging. As well as searching for information and inspiration, colleagues can post questions and find co-workers who may be able to offer expertise on a specific topic.
Combining strategy and innovation
The Radical Innovation Team is able to help deliver truly meaningful innovation thanks in part to the structure that it sits within. The Strategy Office is also within the Transformation Office. “The nice thing is they are my direct colleagues,” says van der Veer. “On paper we are two separate teams, but we work a lot together, because you see that some strategy questions or choices you make are fuelled by technological breakthroughs or innovations that you want to implement… We make sure that our innovations are aligned with the strategy team.”
Not all airlines – nor airports, for that matter – see the holistic value of innovation in the way that KLM does. In fact, some have reduced their innovation budgets as part of recent cost-cutting measures. In van der Veer’s opinion, there is far more to innovation than spending money on seemingly futuristic projects.
“I think there is only one solution and that’s really focusing on knowledge sharing,” she tells FTE. “People think that to be able to invest in innovation you need money. Of course, you need money if you need technology developments, but when times get tough that’s not the only option you have… knowledge is also very, very valuable.”
Alongside the design thinking innovation programme with the University of Technology of Delft, KLM is partnering with the Technical University of Twente to address a shortage of data scientists within the organisation. “We are going to kick-off a programme in October with key cargo colleagues looking to co-create a minimum viable product on a data algorithm we’re looking at for cargo customers,” van der Veer explains. “We have all the industry knowledge, the only thing we lack is the actual data scientists who will build the algorithm and that’s why we’re cooperating with universities. They have students who are lacking in international experience who cannot currently do any internships, who cannot graduate at companies, and so this is what we’re doing right now.”
Overcoming legacy systems and mindsets
Of course, the global backdrop does look bleaker than anyone expected at the start of the year, but van der Veer hopes the industry can take some valuable lessons from the COVID-19 crisis. Increased diversity – covering everything from the gender balance and new ways of thinking, to ethnicity and the number of universities closely aligned with the sector – is on her own wish list, as is a desire to see the industry embrace much-needed change.
“I think that with all crises, it really lays bare the weak points of a company or an industry,” she says. “The weak points in our industry are the legacy systems and legacy mindsets that are hampering innovation. The industry has a very clear purpose – we are here to take people and cargo safely from A to B. Everything else is secondary. If it’s not safe then we can just stop.
“However, most of these rules and mindsets were created 50 years ago. Then we didn’t have the technological advancements that we have now, we didn’t have the computer programmes or quantum computing that we have now, we didn’t have forecasting models or 3D programmes that allow us to test ideas virtually first, but we’re still dealing with the mindset that was created 50 years ago. I hope that because of the crisis, we are going to change our mindset. However, what is never going to change is that it continuously has to be completely safe – that is always the number one thing. In 2020, we can test and we can experiment with new technologies while being safe and that is the big difference. I hope that we, as an industry, become more agile in testing and experimenting in the transformation that this industry really wants.”
While the overall state of the air transport sector in one, two or five years’ time cannot be accurately predicted today, one thing that is certain is that KLM will continue to place its faith in innovation as it continues to search for new ways to optimise efficiency and deliver improvements across the business.