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How General Mills overhauled its supply chain

General Mills’ Becky Crane says focusing on long game a must during company transformation

A General Mills facility. (Photo: General Mills)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When you’re trying to transform a company’s operations, you’ve got to let the short-term stuff get fixed by others.

That was one of the takeaways from an initiative undertaken in the past two years at General Mills to overhaul its supply chain as part of a broader transformation going on with the food manufacturer.

The person who delivered that message at the Gartner Supply Chain Symposium was Becky Crane, the vice president of the morning foods supply chain at General Mills (NYSE: GIS). She had been summoned from her position in Switzerland in 2019 to be in charge of the effort to transform the company’s supply chain. 

And one thing Crane said she found was that the urge to jump in and stamp out the fires that develop in supply chains every day, and which only got worse at the start of the pandemic, has to be ignored by people who are charged with bringing about sweeping transformation.

“You can’t transform things if you don’t have a foundation to run the business on a day-to-day business,” Crane told the audience on the final day of the Gartner symposium, which attracted about 2,700 attendees in its first incarnation since 2019. “You can get sucked in by the day-to-day.”

This was particularly important given that the project started in late 2019, and within a few months companies like General Mills were dealing with surges in demand for their products that at times hit 500%. “I felt guilty when the here and now was burning,” Crane said.

But her managers made clear that she needed to keep her eye on the long game. One of them told her, “Becky, everybody is focused on today. I need five people to imagine our future.”

Crane, in her 30-minute presentation, did not offer many specifics about what the General Mills supply chain looked like after its transformation. But she also made clear that a transformation ca not have a clear start and end date. “I think it is going to be a forever transformation,” she said. 

Talent selection for the people who drove the transformation project was completely different than what the company had done in the past, Crane said. General Mills brought in the services of a venture capital company called Bionic to work with the team.

Crane joked the Bionic team barely knew what a warehouse was but was able to seek out people who had a “growth mindset, and that is not something that everybody has.” As a result, there were instances in the transformation when General Mills had manufacturing people working on logistics. 

Bionic forced the General Mills executives to answer the question: What problems are you trying to solve? “It was a good pause to really focus on what the problems were first,” Crane said, adding that “it’s when people are unclear on what you’re trying to solve that things get clogged up.”

When a transformation is undertaken, it will likely result in “accolades” as the early improvements start to roll in. “But then as soon as people move on, things start to decline,” Crane said. “We didn’t want that to happen. It was too big of an investment and we thought we had too big of an idea.”

Michael Dominy, a vice president and analyst at Gartner, presented a prelude to Crane’s address. He said surveys conducted by Gartner of companies that have done supply chain transformations found that on average, they take just under three years to complete. 

And according to a slide presented by Dominy, these transformations “drive 32% supply chain performance improvement on average.” 

General Mills’ supply chain could have “faltered” during the last two years, Crane said, because the company did face force majeure from some suppliers that provided specific ingredients that were not otherwise easy to replace. But as part of the transformation, the company has been able to provide “super-creative solutions” to fill gaps left by existing blips in the supply chains of the company’s suppliers.

Although Crane did not review any specific changes in operations as a result of the supply chain transformation project, she did say the company has had an “incredible two years. … It has been exhausting.”

She boasted that General Mills has “competed incredibly effectively on service,” reaching between 80% and 90% of its service effectiveness goals. 

“Second, we’re gaining market share because we’re on the shelf,” Crane said. 

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.