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Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. A former Madison, WI resident, Kay now resides in San Diego, CA. The views on her blog are not those of her employer, IBM.

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February 22nd, 2012

Business model innovation involving toilets, yes toilets

In innovation, adopt a broad versus a narrow lens on the opportunity and the solution.

I never thought toilets could be so interesting. They provide a rich example of thinking beyond traditional product concepts when pursuing innovation to unearth smarter systems innovations.

A narrow view

If this is the toilet, I thought, bring on the shower.

On a work trip to Shanghai, P.R.C., my hotel room’s high-end bathroom included a combination electric toilet and bidet. Walking towards it, the seat cover rose, offering a heated toilet seat. After I selected water temperature, direction and pressure, integrated water and air jets washed and dried my derriere. I might have survived Girl Scouts had this toilet been available in its campground outhouse.

Manufactured in Kyushu, Japan, Toto and its competitors have placed this high-end version of a necessity in 65% of Japanese homes, as of early 2008. The only other nation with high penetration is Korea, although judging by the glamor I observed in Shanghai’s better districts, this city will surely catch up. Toto has also placed its product in Shanghai’s business/first class airport waiting lounge and in high-end Japanese restaurants in New York City, Dallas, San Diego and LA. The placements create an opportunity for consumers to experience a TOTO washlet, as the innovative product is called – “a natural, purifying experience that will leave you clean and happy.” Higher end versions even conduct medical tests.

The new bathroom product reflects innovators thinking beyond one product to consider the collection of products and steps consumers use to achieve desired cleanliness outcomes. The washlet also solves space issues in large urban areas where apartment space is tight, reduces use of (forest products) paper tissue and offers a luxury at a relatively affordable price. The washlet in other words is a systems solution. It looks beyond the industry’s traditional product to get more jobs done and offer a wider array of benefits. In the process, the washlet delivers far more value than traditional solutions, value worthy of a high price tag.

Let’s look at a second systems solution involving sanitation.

A broader view

Far away in a developing nation, Ghana Africa, a different toilet solution is in the making.  Eighty percent of the 2.5 million people of Kimasi, Ghana lack adequate sanitation in their homes. They walk a long distance to a public toilet or they use plastic bags later disposed of outside. My daughter observed this smelly situation in Accra, Ghana where she spent part of a summer on a service project.

WSUP, a non-profit working to improve access for affordable and safe water sanitation partnered with Unilever, a global consumer products company, to solve the sanitation issue. Unilever’s interest in a sanitation solution stems from its belief that healthier happier people in emerging markets (now 50% of Unilever’s business) will be more inclined to buy other health and well-being products. The duo hired IDEO, a global innovation consultancy headquartered in San Francisco, to find a solution. IDEO’s Jennifer Corniskey spoke about the project at the Social Enterprise Alliance’s recent national conference.

IDEO’s solution is a service business that rents portable toilets to households with a weekly or monthly fee for waste collection. Franchise operators, hired and trained by Unilever, place the toilets and collect waste, dumping the waste in centralized holding tanks used by multiple franchise operators. This waste is then be recycled as fertilizer for local farms, with the centralized tanks a second franchise business opportunity. A six-month pilot test in 100 Kumasi homes was underway, Corniskey shared, to refine the business, service, and system models.


I have always found that a wider view offers richer innovation possibilities and these two toilet examples are no exception. Furthermore, IDEO’s wider view is the clear winner. Its solution is surely needed in a world where 2.6 billion people live without basic sanitation (UN 2006 report).

If you want your innovation to have more impact, adopt a broader lens. Still, too broad a view can be lethal. Had IDEO tried to solve poverty in Ghana, versus sanitation, its creativity would have yielded little, as poverty is too broad a scope for surfacing root cause problems and solving all of them.

Without a doubt, IDEO’s broader thinking will leave the world a better place. But I will admit to enjoying the TOTO heated seat in the middle of the night when my bare feet met with cold marble floor tiles.

6 comments to Business model innovation involving toilets, yes toilets

  • Kay, it’s been a busy week and I almost passed on your blog. But the title grabbed me. Additionally, it’s darn interesting what can be learned from the lowly pot.

  • Great post on innovation! Both ends of the spectrum addressed well.

    Thanks Kay.

  • Hi Kay,

    Greetings from Dubln Ireland.

    Great examples of how through innovation and design thinking principles outcome benefited so
    many in a social, economic and in a general all round development level.

    You are spot on with your reference to the big picture or wider lens viewpoint and this is how I
    look at things.
    So many peolple are stuck in a silo mentality mindset and this can be too restrictive in their
    ways of thinking.


  • Great to meet you Gerard. I am a McGinley-Hyland on my mother’s side and love Ireland. At 89, my Mom is taking one last trip to County Mayo to see her Mom’s home. I like your reference to silo mentality. Yes, that is the core issue.

  • I found this post very interesting! I’m a student at Kendall College studying business management and we just had a lecture about the importance of innovation in business and how it is necessary to sustain a business and keep it profitable. Thanks for the great resource.

  • Thanks Troy. Business model innovation is to 21st century what quality management was to the last century. A required skill.

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