Creating a Culture of Creativity

By Cher Mereweather

Does the pursuit of efficiency in the operations side of food and beverage manufacturing companies seep into the organizational culture to the point where it chases out innovation and creativity?

It used to be that July and August were the quieter times of the year. These were the times where clients rotated out on vacation, leaving lower workloads and where my days could be filled with catching up on reading, thinking and then dreaming of what I’d be doing when I could get out on the lake and leave civilization behind. 


No more, of course. You’re reading this, in the middle of August, in what has been the most tumultuous year in probably all of our lifetimes. In fact, you may be reading it on your phone while doing three other things.


Without labouring the point, we have lost many of those moments when we used to gather our thoughts. And I, for one, am not a fan. 


So in the spirit of trying to conjure up the spirit, if not the reality, of a less frenetic world, I spent some time this week reading articles that I had bookmarked or been sent over the last few months. 


One in particular got my attention in a way that I wasn’t expecting. 


It was a slideshow on the corporate culture of Netflix. 


While over ten years old, this document, which the company published on LinkedIn for all to see, has some fascinating insights into how this relatively young upstart of a company managed to overturn and disrupt over half a century of broadcasting and cinema status quo.  


It’s also not for the fainthearted and is very much a product of Silicone Valley. At one point, the document outlines something called the “Keeper Test”. This is a test that managers are supposed to carry out on all their people on a regular basis. And it looks like this: “which of my people, if they told me they were leaving for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight hard to keep?”. The idea is that if there is someone on the team who the manager wouldn’t fight for then they are given “a generous severance now so we can open a slot to find a star for that role.” 




I don’t agree with a lot of the thinking in this document. It doesn’t speak to my vision of what purpose is and how it can be used to ensure that we are taking care of people, planet as well as profit.


But later on in the presentation, the focus switches to how to manage complexity as firms grow quickly.


Many of the organizations that we work with face this challenge, so it intrigued me to see how Netflix – which after all is a company that has experienced huge growth – approached the issue.


Their thesis is that growth increases complexity and that to manage this complexity, firms tend towards more process and procedures, which in turn create additional bureaucracy and management. This tends to push out high performing and creative employees, which becomes a problem if there is a disruption in the market and the company needs to pivot and adapt, because it’s those very same high performing and creative employees that you want leading that pivot. And if they’ve left and been replaced by process and procedures, then you’ve significantly damaged your resiliency.


Again, this may be true in a tech start up, but does this thesis also hold up in the food and beverage industry?


The food and beverage manufacturing and processing space is one that lends itself, de facto, to process (it’s in the name, after all!). When you make 50,000 bread rolls per day, making sure that each roll is of the same quality and that there is maximum efficiency and minimum waste is an absolute priority. Production needs efficiency and process. You can’t be creatively deciding that some bread rolls will be brown and others will be “green” just to stay ahead of potential market disruptions!


We need process. We need procedures and structure. But we also need high performing creative minds. And we need them to co-exist in a fine balance. Too much process and we lose resiliency. Too much creativity and we also lose resiliency.


Bain & Co have done some interesting work in this space. Featured in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), back in 2015 was a piece of research that categorized levels of employee engagement.


According to the authors, Eric Garton & Michael Mankins, satisfied employees have a safe work environment, the tools, training and resources to do the job and they are valued and rewarded fairly.  Engaged employees (the next level up) feel like they are part of an extraordinary team that makes a real impact, and they have the autonomy to do their job while learning and growing every day. But inspired employees (the crème de la crème) are lit up by their company’s purpose, by their leaders and derive real personal meaning from their work.


This quote stood out for me: “Employees react differently when they encounter a wall. Satisfied employees hold a meeting to discuss what to do about walls. Engaged employees begin looking around for ladders to scale the wall. Inspired employees break right through it.”


The study goes on to look at productivity. If a satisfied employee is a baseline of 100%, an engaged employee reaches 144%, while an inspired employee clocks in at 225%. In other words, an inspired employee is worth more than two and a quarter satisfied employees. 


And this got me thinking….


Does the pursuit of efficiency in the operations side of food and beverage manufacturing companies seep into the organizational culture to the point where it chases out innovation and creativity?


In my experience, it can. And I’ve observed that when that happens, levels of employee satisfaction tend to go down. For me, it all comes down to purpose.


There is something interesting we can learn from the Netflix model. Let’s be clear, you can’t upload a Silicone Valley tech mentality onto a F&B manufacturing company. That doesn’t work. But, we can reflect more on the balance of how we encourage creativity and agility while ensuring that we have processes and procedures and a commitment to quality and safety.


And the way I believe we can best do that is by being clear on our purpose. When employees know why the company they work for exists (beyond making money), when they are serving something that is bigger than themselves every day when they show up for work, and when they feel like they are making a difference to more than just the bottom line, they are more likely to be in the engaged or inspired category, processes and rules notwithstanding.


However, a firm without a purpose that has an over-riding culture of rules and procedures will have less engaged employees.


We have seen first hand over the last few months the risks of a lack of agility and resiliency in our food system. Millions of tons of product have gone to waste. 


Put simply, we need more companies in this country to embrace purpose. It is the key, particularly in an industry as complex and codified as ours, to ensuring that you find the right balance between creativity and procedure. It is the key to ensuring that we increase the engagement of the employees in our sector. And it is key to ensuring that when the next pandemic or disruptive shock hits our industry (which it will), we instinctively figure out where the walls are and choose to break right through them, rather than holding meetings to discuss the characteristics of the walls.


Cher Mereweather

President & CEO

P 519.822.2042 x1

C 519.803.6395

Tags: Sustainability, Food and Beverage, Creativity

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