Frugal Innovation: Lessons from Carlos Ghosn, CEO, Renault-Nissan
Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, famously coined the term “frugal engineering” in 2006. He was impressed by Indian engineers’ ability to innovate cost-effectively and quickly under severe resource constraints. And under Ghosn’s leadership , Renault-Nissan has proactively embraced frugal engineering and become one of the world’s leading producers of both electric cars as well as low-cost vehicles — two of the fastest growing and most promising market segments in the global automotive sector.
Recently, in New York, we participated in a panel discussion organized by the Asia Society called “Jugaad Innovation: Reigniting American Ingenuity” (you can watch a video here). We were honored to have Ghosn as our key panelist. During the panel discussion, Ghosn explained that Western automakers must sacrifice the “bigger is better” R&D model and adapt to frugal engineering.
In today’s resource-constrained environment, Western firms are feeling the growing pressure to “do more with less” — that is, deliver more value to customers at less cost. CEOs of these firms can emulate four best practices initiated by Carlos Ghosn at Renault-Nissan:
1) Create “good enough” products that deliver high value for money: Over-engineering products is no longer sustainable — both for economical and environmental reasons. Rather, Western firms need to make simplicity a key tenet of their innovation process by developing “good enough” offerings that deliver significant value for money to cost-conscious consumers. For example, in 2004, Renault launched Logan, a small, no-frills family car. At a starting price of $10,000, the car is built with drastically simplified product architecture and minimal components. In addition to a stripped-down, modern design, Logan is reliable and energy efficient. As a result, it has become Renault’s best-selling car across recession-weary European markets as well as in many emerging markets. Building on Logan’s success, Renault has now developed an entire line of low-cost vehicles (under the brand Dacia) all modeled after Logan’s technology platform.
2) Foster healthy rivalry among global R&D teams: CEOs may find it difficult to persuade R&D teams in the US and Europe — used to abundant resources and pushing the technology frontier for its own sake — to embrace frugal innovation. Yet engineers and scientists love challenges. Western CEOs can create challenges for global R&D teams by introducing artificial constraints that foster a sense of urgency and healthy rivalry that can lead to frugal solutions. In one instance, Ghosn requested three different R&D teams — one each from Japan, France, and India — to come up an engineering solution for the same technical problem. The teams came up with solutions of equal quality — yet the Indian engineers’ solution cost only one-fifth of what the French and Japanese engineers’ solutions cost.
3) Tap partners in emerging markets who excel at innovating more with less. Rather than relying exclusively on in-house R&D teams to develop frugal solutions, companies in developed economies need to connect with entrepreneurial organizations in emerging markets that have a knack for innovating on a shoestring. Recognizing that even its least-expensive pickup truck was five times costlier than the Indian market could afford, Nissan established an R&D and manufacturing joint venture with Ashok Leyland, an Indian commercial vehicle manufacturer. Ghosn recounts with humor how Dr. V. Sumantran, Non-Executive Vice-Chairman of Ashok Leyland, paid a visit to the basement of Nissan’s technical center in Atsugi, Japan and pointed to a four-generation old Nissan pick-up truck. He told Nissan’s baffled head of product planning: “Give us the design specs of this vehicle and our Indian engineers will use it as baseline to develop a great-looking yet affordable and robust pick-up truck fit for the tough Indian roads.” And they did it. The result is DOST, an entry-level pick-up truck with a starting price of Rs 3.7 lakhs ($6,600). Since its launch in September 2011, DOST has garnered more than a third of India’s hypercompetitive light commercial vehicles market. The Ashok Leyland-Nissan joint venture now plans to introduce DOST in other emerging markets in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
4) Send your top executives to emerging markets to cultivate the jugaad mindset: Ultimately frugal innovation is not just about doing more with less. It’s about learning how to innovate under severe constraints and turn extreme adversity into an opportunity for growth. But it’s hard for Western executives to cultivate this frugal, flexible and inclusive mindset — which we call jugaad — in resource-rich and relatively stable Western economies. That’s why Ghosn dispatched Gérard Detourbet, a senior executive in Paris who was in charge of Renault-Nissan’s entry-level cars, to India. From his new base in Chennai, Detourbet will be leading the development of a “global small car” — an entry-level car priced at around Rs 3 lakhs ($5,200) that will first be commercialized in India and then introduced in other emerging markets like Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. When Detourbet returns to Renault-Nissan’s headquarters in Paris, he is poised to bring with him the jugaad mindset he honed in India. As Ghosn, a Brazilian-born French national of Lebanese descent, explains: “We don’t go to emerging markets to just bring back a product, but to learn something — like new processes or a whole new mindset.”
To win in today’s resource-constrained global economy, Western CEOs must follow Ghosn’s lead in embracing frugal innovation. By inculcating the jugaad mindset within their enterprise, Western CEOs will be able to build a resilient organization that can deliver significantly more value to customers using fewer resources.