Insights into Kreg Tool’s path to driving innovation with an ‘owner mentality’

The Innovation in Action story format aims to demonstrate that developing, implementing and executing innovative ideas is a process — and not typically a linear one. These stories seek to highlight that throughout the ups and downs of innovation, each move is a lesson for the organization.

Kreg Tool Co. was born out of an innovation. Founder Craig Sommerfeld invented the product that launched the manufacturing company and made Kreg a household name in woodworking.


This story inspired Kreg’s leaders almost 35 years later as they began seeking to rekindle an innovative mindset in the organization. Sam Titus, vice president of operations, said necessity was an initial driver as the company faced new realities following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a realization, quite frankly, that in order for us to turn the ship around faster than our competition, we have to be willing to do things differently,” Titus said.

The Business Record interviewed Titus about Kreg’s renewed innovation efforts in August 2023 and continued checking in over the last nine months to document its journey and lessons along the way. 

Kreg’s leaders organized an Innovation Month to start engaging its 180 employee-owners with events to define what an innovative mindset is and communicate that ideas that don’t work are important and worth celebrating. 

The Ankeny-based manufacturer also established a self-led innovation committee composed of representatives from different departments, including Titus. Its initial goal was to rouse idea submissions related to products or processes for the committee to review.

In an update Titus sent to the Business Record near the end of 2023, he said the innovation committee wasn’t gaining as much momentum as they anticipated and idea submissions were slow to come in. The effort evolved into two different strategies for Kreg’s main divisions: office and operations.

“We found out using one-size-fits-all for the office and for operations clearly wasn’t working and part of innovation and continuous improvement is adapting quickly,” Titus said in a February interview.

The following leaders are some of those who have been involved in building a culture of innovation at Kreg and spoke with the Business Record: 


Josh LaRue, director of operations, overseeing production and operators on Kreg’s warehouse floor. LaRue was one of the leaders involved in independently launching the operations team’s own innovation committee. He joined Kreg three years ago.


Will Miller, inventory planning manager. Miller is on the innovation committee and has helped lead innovation efforts among the company’s office departments, which include supply chain and finance. He started at Kreg last summer, one month after the innovation kickoff event. 


Anne Walter, senior data analyst on Kreg’s IT team. She is a member of the innovation committee and has helped Miller work with the office departments. She has been at Kreg for eight years. 

Trying a new approach

Efforts on both the office and operations side have focused on process innovations during the last nine months while the innovation committee continued to develop ideas around product innovation, Titus said. 

For the office departments, the committee decided to work with one department at a time, applying the sprint mentality. A sprint is an approach to continuous improvement where a team works for short periods of time over several weeks to identify pain points and develop solutions. 

Two elements that are important to the sprint mentality are empowering teams to take time away from the day-to-day for continuous improvement and making engagements bite-sized so it fits in with daily work, Miller said. He walked through the process at the February interview.

The sprint mentality at Kreg

Identification: The first interaction is a two-hour event developing a high-level map of the core processes the department uses every day, Miller said. “We spend about one hour of process mapping and really focusing on the team defining what they believe the process to be. What’s interesting is the perspectives of what the process is versus what they all find out it really is by the time they all add their input,” he said. When they move to identifying pain points and ideas for improvement, the priority is areas where there is wasted energy.  

Analysis: Miller said the two focuses in deciding which problems to address are those that are low effort with high return on investment and can be solved by only the people in the department. Then the group decides on a couple actionable steps to take in the next few weeks before meeting again. 

Miller said he thinks consistently finding small areas for improvement and empowering teams to act helps integrate innovation at a foundational level and increases employees’ commitment to the process.

“What we tried to calibrate [the] group with is don’t go looking for the gold nugget. Really what we’re doing is encouraging them to mine for the gold dust that’s out there and find these simple wins that we can celebrate and move forward with taking pain and daily waste out of their operations,” he said.

The goal is that working with teams instills a mindset that evolves into a self-sustaining effort as it spreads across the company. If every department takes time monthly to focus on continuous improvement, “that’s where you see significant harvest,” Miller said.

Lessons learned:

Employees value the company recognizing they’re busy and making the effort to make innovation accessible. 

To be effective, leaders need to demonstrate the progress of employees’ ideas and share how they are driving actionable results and changes. 

Miller’s key takeaway: “Don’t box innovation [in] because I think there was this paradigm that when [Innovation Month] kicked off, it was all product focused. What I came to learn is no, innovation is about the business. How can we redesign the business in all functions, whether it’s the product portfolio or whether it’s the processes to support the business. … I think once we had that mindset calibration with [everyone] that we [weren’t] coming in to redesign the product and find the next big market-changing item, it was this [sense of] ‘Oh, we can all contribute.’” 

Stepping up in operations 

Kreg’s operations division tailored its innovation efforts by launching its own innovation committee, providing an avenue for the approximately 80 hourly employees to share ideas for improvement.

LaRue said the idea arose following an employee engagement survey around the same time as Innovation Month in 2023. Seven workers from different areas within the warehouse initially joined the committee around fall 2023.

Building engagement: The committee launched with weekly meetings and members soliciting ideas from their peers on the warehouse floor. The initial benefits were stronger engagement and streamlining processes, LaRue said.

“We evolved to the point where that team was coming to a daily stand-up meeting with my operational leaders and they were discussing the initiatives they were passionate about driving,” he said. “They took ownership and partnered with leaders to drive those ideas forward. That team also … created a QR code to do an idea submittal process.”

Bumps in the road: The committee’s consistency took a hit when peak season for manufacturers started in the last quarter of the year.

“That’s one of those cautionary flags that it’s important to do these, but in operations sometimes, the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, and when you’re short on labor and working overtime, it’s hard to pull a team off the floor for an hour-and-a-half meeting,” LaRue said.

The meetings restarted in January, but LaRue said he felt that not having time to move ideas forward during peak season diminished the feeling of success. 

A couple other challenges LaRue found were related. Committee members wanted to find solutions for every idea, so it was difficult to maintain a smaller scope. Similarly, with limited resources to put toward solutions, he said it was easy for the team to get discouraged when all the problems couldn’t be addressed quickly. 

Lessons learned:

The importance of always having a few ideas in progress and taking incremental actions to move them forward.

After innovation became a side thought for operations, it showed how driving innovation must be intentional.

LaRue’s key takeaway: “We have a belief that an engaged workforce is one [where] their ideas can be submitted easily and implemented so they have a say in how their job gets done. This was a little bit of a blind leap of faith [to understand] is this going to help? We recently redid that [employee engagement] survey and the results did improve. Can we say 100% it was our innovation committee? No, but we did something. We got better results, so we’re going to continue to go down that path to drive those results.”

Titus said these efforts helped create a different mentality of continuous improvement and empowered employee-owners to identify problems and initiate solutions.

“I think nimbleness comes from the willingness to do something different, and that’s my cornerstone is to do something. … I don’t prescribe that it needs to be home runs. I just prescribe that you’re going to get up to bat and you’re going to take a swing, whether you strike out, or whether you hit a base, or whether you hit a home run,” Titus said. 

The execution is a balance between intentionally taking time for innovation and coaching and providing autonomy, he said.

Titus’ key takeaway: “If you start with the results in mind, it will always impact the way you go about it and more so in a negative way. But if you start with the best of intentions and [by] forgetting about the results, [and] just doing the right thing, the results will come.”

Up next: At a May interview, the Kreg leaders reflected on how the organization has changed as they approached the first anniversary of their innovation kickoff and shared more progress updates from office and operations leaders.

An operator working on the warehouse floor at Kreg’s Ankeny headquarters. The operations team launched its own innovation committee in addition to a company-wide committee to drive improvements. Photo by Duane Tinkey

Seeing the new mentality at work

At a final interview in May, the Kreg leaders reflected on how the organization has changed since the innovation committee launched almost one year ago.

Kreg held another company-wide Innovation Month event in April to recognize its successes in operations, product and process, but more broadly, connect all employee-owners to the mindset that innovations aren’t always big and their ideas should be shared.

“[We] really tried to challenge the group from a cultural perspective that we’re not saying innovation is this big bang, innovation is simply about what are we going to focus on to get better?” Miller said.

Titus said what changed from the first Innovation Month nearly a year before was that more employee-owners held a common mindset that is driving the improvements of products and processes.

“From the very beginning, it has never been about the number of ideas and it has never been about necessarily blitzing to get everything done,” he said. “It’s that your mindset has to shift to an owner mentality, and by shifting into an owner mentality, you’re going to take responsibility to not only come up with the idea, but help solve the problem.”

Several examples of the owner mentality in action occurred throughout the spring, he said.

First, the operations innovation committee had several successes since restarting its meetings.

Self-starters: To help move ideas forward despite limited resources, the committee members started blocking off an hour every other week dedicated to acting on areas they want to improve. They have also self-selected committee leaders and solved problems without help from leaders or engineers. 

“That’s a major shift [from] even just three months ago. Three months ago, it was just ‘bring ideas’ and expect them to get done for them. Now they’re going to really go out and drive the activity themselves,” LaRue said.

Innovation under pressure: When sales rose unexpectedly and exceeded capacity for several weeks, the operations team doubled production hours by finding volunteers to come in early or stay late and collaborated with supply-chain and scheduling teams. 

“The team very quickly came up with those ideas on how to overcome, where in the past it might have been acceptable to fall behind,” LaRue said.

He said visually representing accomplishments and works in progress as well as providing a reward system are both important in maintaining innovation among the operations team.

On the office side, Miller said since completing the series of sprints with the supply chain department, its leader and team have continued to move through the list of improvements they identified and are receiving feedback from other departments. The second department started its sprints in May as some other departments were taking stock of ways they could innovate outside of participating in the sprints.

Titus said the constant he sees for the future of Kreg’s innovation journey is change.

“Expecting our entire team to be involved will help spin that flywheel,” he said. “They always say continuous improvement — it’s never-ending. [It’s] just the vehicle we use to get there, it’s going to evolve and it’s going to change. It has to, in order to continue to progress and to go faster than what we’ve done in the past.”

Beyond ‘Innovation in Action’

As Kreg’s innovation journey is set to continue beyond this story, the Kreg team provided their advice to other companies working on continuous improvement efforts from what they’ve learned so far.

LaRue: There are quick ways to get the team to not engage if you’re trying to push innovation. When we launched this last year, we did a viking funeral on purpose to celebrate. It’s okay to fail. One [piece] of advice would be to celebrate failure. Don’t make it punitive because if all of a sudden, people get shunned because their ideas didn’t work or a project didn’t work, it could be very bad. There’s [lessons] there. We have a pretty big project that we missed some communication early on with the supply chain team and it was some hard lessons learned.

But those lessons are learned; they’re not going to be repeated. If you embrace innovation, you have to embrace failure and then learn to celebrate it.

Titus: Early on, it felt like we were trying to boil the ocean and every department was, in essence, asked to hurry up and come up with ideas and implement on [their] own, and it’s just not the way the world works. That was the goal of mine, to take a department and really teach and then use those team members to teach other team members as a cascading effect. My advice would be don’t get over your skis. Start small. You have to demonstrate the wins. You can celebrate all the failures you want but you have to have some wins to keep the team engaged. Don’t think you’re going to change it overnight, but then have the passion to continue even when things don’t work because you know it’s the right thing to do.

Miller: We’ve been part of this [original equipment manufacturing] culture. You have these separate siloed [departments] who come in. Very powerful but they’re [siloed]. To me the measure on that is always about [checking a box]. It wasn’t really about what do I see and sense that the team took from that? I would really encourage other companies, starting this journey — you have to find a way to promote it, you have to share that it’s OK to fail, you have to deliver results that the financials — but I think as a leader, the one thing that you have to make sure that you’re calibrated to is what do I see and sense? You’ve seen many different versions of actionable steps that individuals are taking to fix things. To me, when you can see and sense that you have an organization that is breathing it on its own, that’s when you can stop asking the question of what do we have to do to sustain it because then you start to see success in the roots of the organization.

Walter: For other businesses that are trying to implement innovation, something that I’ve seen be really helpful is the reflection process. The one-on-ones we do at the end of the week where you’re asked what went well this week, what didn’t go well, that’s a chance to look back. In the things that didn’t go well, I’m thinking, how can I make sure it goes well the next time, just [for myself]? The processes we’re doing with these departments where we first list everything that they work on that gives them time for group reflection and for them to see that other members of the team are frustrated with the same process and sometimes people are just so hunkered down at their desk getting their own work done that they don’t see what is impacting other people.