Kay Plantes never thought toilets could be so interesting. During a recent trip to China, she realized that they provide a rich example of thinking beyond one product when pursuing innovation.

On a work trip to Shanghai, People’s Republic of China, 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.  If this is the toilet, I thought, bring on the shower.

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 glamour 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 Los Angeles. 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.” I might have survived Girl Scouts had this toilet been available in its campground when I was 12 in place of the outhouse.

The new bathroom product reflects innovators thinking beyond one product to consider the collection of products and steps consumers use to achieve desired outcomes. The washlet solves space issues in large urban areas where apartment space is tight, addresses cultural cleanliness concerns, 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.

Let’s look at a second one.

A broader view

Far away in a very different economy, Ghana in Africa, a different personal sanitation solution is in the making.  Eighty percent of the 2.5 million people of Kimasi, Ghana are among the 1 billion city dwellers lacking 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 marketing (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 a recent summit of the Social Enterprise Alliance that I attended.

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, would place the toilets and collect waste, dumping the waste in centralized holding tanks used by multiple franchise operators. This waste would 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 is underway, refining 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 a broader impact, you must look more broadly. Toto, with a broader view, might have made the toilet more environmentally sustainable (It is, to be fair, thinking more broadly in adding medical tests to its highest end toilets). Still, too broad a view can be lethal. Had IDEO tried to solve poverty instead of sanitation, its creativity would have yielded little, as poverty is too broad a scope for surfacing root cause problems and solving 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 the cold marble floor tiles.

MIT-trained economist Kay Plantes is a strategy consultant and author of Beyond Price: Differentiate Your Company in Ways that Really Matter (Greenleaf Book Group, 2009). She writes a blog on business model innovation at