For many people, the world stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic. For some companies like ours, it sped up. At General Mills – with brands like Cheerios, Nature Valley, Old El Paso, Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, Blue Buffalo pet food, and more – we quickly became laser-focused on feeding consumers food they love in a time of need.
And nothing sped up faster than the disruption and transformation of our own supply chain in our largest North American market.
General Mills is a 153-year-old company with over 100 brands in more than 100 countries. It has stood the test of time, built a strong reputation in the industry and developed a legacy of executional excellence. But like many large corporations, it has tended to rely on a one-size-fits-all approach that has traditionally slowed it down.
Prior to the pandemic, we were already transforming our North America supply chain. We had our sights on enabling a consumer-focused, competitively advantaged value chain through a test-and-learn culture. And because we had laid a foundation and built the muscle for how to do this – and accelerate – we were better prepared to deliver when COVID-19 became a global pandemic in March 2020.
Here are three ways we disrupted our supply chain to meet the moment and compete.
1. Put people and safety first
This concept itself is not a disruption for us. At General Mills, we have a long legacy of putting people and safety first, going all the way back to a flour mill explosion in 1878 that resulted in tragedy – and then, best-in-class safety measures for both our people and our food. (We shared those measures with competitors and have been a leader in safety ever since.)
But what has been a disruption is our decision to be early and strict adopters of constantly evolving COVID-19 preventative measures. It’s been a no-brainer for us and has allowed us to keep our people safe and run our plants without major business disruption to date.
In our manufacturing plants, rather than the “waves” that we often hear about, responding to COVID-19 has been a steady stream of new processes and reinvention. Early in the calendar year, as the situation in China began impacting our business, we started to watch and learn. As the virus spread, General Mills created a global task force to ensure an enterprise response.
From a manufacturing perspective, this learning allowed us to be an early adopter of mask use, temperature checks and other protective equipment and policies. Right away in March, we made use of different spaces for breaks rather than community areas, adjusted furniture and workstations to increase distance between people and transitioned in-person meetings to virtual communications.
We also found new ways to reach employees, frequently and authentically, so that they felt connected, heard and recognized. Unvarnished videos of leaders sharing words of thanks and inspiration from their phones, a daily bonus, paid COVID-19 leave and regular “surprise and delight” rewards kept our plant workers on the front lines feeling motivated and appreciated. We continue to find new ways to engage our people. Similar to how we acted in 1878, we quickly shared learnings with our suppliers, external supply chain partners and industry peers. In some cases, we even hosted webinars to teach these groups our best practices and expectations.
2. Position for speed
Our Chairman and CEO, Jeff Harmening, often says that perfection is the enemy of change.
Many established corporate entities have a hard time adapting quickly to change. For us, the pandemic shattered that barrier. We were forced to shift from an organization focused on perfecting – with as much information as possible – to one focused on fast action.
Luckily, there are a few things we put in place before the pandemic that positioned us for speed. We had built a new platform of business process management, which allowed us to be more agile during sky-rocketing demand and daily volatility. Because of it, our teams knew how to get work done and make decisions more quickly.
We also sharpened our North America Supply Chain mission, which was to make as many cases as we could, safely. It was simple, unarguable and allowed 10,000 employees to get really clear and aligned on what they needed to do in a short amount of time. This was a mental disruption to our usual decentralized laundry list of goals and priorities, specific to each site and function.
And we depended on others to help us move quickly. We leveraged solid partnerships within and beyond our network to make things happen in days that would normally take months. For example, we were able to use our sites that typically service schools and restaurants – experiencing spare downtime due to decreased demand – to help service the sites that were struggling to keep up with high retail demand. And when raw ingredients like cranberries were in short supply, just as demand spiked for our berry granola bars, the team was able to find and approve a new supplier within 24 hours and avoid a plant shutdown.
3. Embark on a journey of learning
The urgency of the pandemic required us to change our mindset and ways of operational decision making. We had to move from a decades-long culture of knowing to one of learning.
We activated a daily control tower meeting to closely monitor supply and demand risk, production capacity and proper prioritization throughout the business. Most importantly, this meeting served as a daily forum for learning, and further opened up decision making at all levels. Cascading metrics allowed us to make decisions at the speed of business, creating a true cohort of shared consciousness. It also helped put into practice and normalize an iterative, imperfect style of creative problem-solving.
This learning mindset can be applied more broadly in how we’re investing. We found new opportunities to invest in both internal and external capacity to build more volume and keep up with demand – sometimes in scrappy ways to service the here-and-now.
For example, we used 3D scanning and virtual reality to complete the largest capital expansion in our recent history, remotely. This added immediate capacity to our Cinnamon Toast Crunch line, which is currently the No. 2 cereal in the U.S. And we’re simultaneously investing in external capacity to keep up with live and ever-changing demand, especially on constrained platforms like soup and refrigerated baked goods leading into key seasons. We have added 45 external production lines through contractors since the first round of pantry loading this spring.
We are also investing behind data and analytics, which is a learning mechanism for us. We have built a dedicated team with unique skills to unlock differential growth and procurement efficiencies for our business; we’re leveraging tools to enhance our global sourcing capabilities and machine learning to improve the accuracy of our demand forecast, resulting in lower supply chain costs.
Data and analytics will improve the way our sales organization partners with customers to develop customized solutions by category and geography. It will amplify our strategic revenue management capability to unlock price/mix opportunities at a channel and SKU level, and it will enhance our marketing efforts by delivering better insights that lead to personalized consumer communications.
Beyond the pandemic, we have been ruthlessly focused on delivering customer value by working with customers on their priorities. This requires an acute listening and learning mentality.
The most important lesson: Even large, established systems can become agile and pivot quickly in trying times like these. For us, the pandemic allowed us to really focus on the need, resulting in a 15% increase in production on a dime, winning on shelf and achieving one of our safest years on record. We are bringing more value to our customers and consumers, with people continuing to be at the center of what we do, always. And from a business standpoint, our supply chain helped enable and accelerate company growth in unprecedented times.
Paul Gallagher is vice president of General Mills North American supply chain.