It’s hard to think about the future these days. In some cases, it may be because the here and now is kicking our butts so hard. After all, it’s hard to dream big when you are struggling with the basics of getting the right products where they need to be on time. In other cases, it may be because the immediate future can feel a little bleak or unpredictable, particularly when it comes to rising inflation and the specter of a recession.
But the truth is that no matter how much we try to avoid it, we really have no choice. We have to be thinking about the future because it’s clear that what we are doing today is not going to work tomorrow.
But how do you do that? How do you dream about the future and fight today’s fires at the same time? How do you find time to experiment with new technology or create innovative new processes when you’re scrambling to find enough inventory or transportation capacity or even enough people to work in your DC?
For General Mills, the answer was to stop asking people to do both at the same time. At the analyst group Gartner’s Supply Chain Symposium in early June, Becky Crane, vice president of General Mills’ morning foods supply chain, talked about how she was asked to lead a major supply chain transformation effort for the food company in 2019. After going through an extensive process to select a team of five people to lead the transformation, the company was ready to launch the effort in the spring of 2020 … right when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and everything shut down.
Crane was a veteran supply chain firefighter. She had managed plants and supply chain efforts around the world. She knew how to solve problems.
“As a former manufacturing leader, I felt guilty that I was still working on the future when the here and now was burning,” she told attendees at the conference. “We couldn’t get supply. We were trying to figure out how to keep our people safe.”
She begged her boss, Chief Supply Chain Officer Paul Gallagher, to let her use her expertise to help with these efforts. “I called Paul and said, ‘You let me know where you need me to go. I can lead, and I will be on those front lines. I will get on a plane,’” Crane recounted.
Gallagher told her no. “He told me, ‘Becky, everybody is focused on today. I need five people to imagine our future. This is where I need you right now,’” Crane said.
The company lived up to its words, giving Crane and her team the latitude to pursue their transformation project without getting sucked into day-to-day operations. While others focused on dealing with supply chain disruptions and finding a way to meet skyrocketing demand, the transformation team experimented with new processes and technologies—failing fast and often.
In fact, when General Mills selected those five “transform leads,” it specifically looked for people who were different from most day-to-day operational managers. The company assessed candidates on whether they had a “growth mindset”—which Crane defines as being able to “think in possibilities” and be “unconstrained” in the way they approach problems. “This is not something everybody can do,” she explained.
Crane believes that it was this separation from the day-to-day that led to the success of the company’s transformation efforts and allowed the team to roll out innovations in spite of the turbulence of the past two years.
“It was one of the most important things that we did behind protecting our people and our community,” she said.