How Golden State Foods Connects Strategy and Innovation

Aug. 5, 2021
GSF has embraced the notion of an innovation continuum involving all employees; so can your company.

In writing about Golden State Foods being named one of Food Processing's 2021 R&D Teams of the Year, something that stood out about the Irvine, Calif.-based company was how it connected strategy and innovation into everything they did. Corporate Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Bob Wolpert contributed this piece about that very topic. 

“Innovation is for tech companies.”

“Strategy is not something I can influence.”

Neither is true anymore. Golden State Foods (GSF) recognizes that these views of innovation and strategy are no longer healthy. Company leaders must adapt to accelerated technology, pervasive ideation and idea-to-value cycle time reductions. GSF is on a high-speed train journey to remain a trusted and respected partner to our customers. You may find aspects of this journey helpful in your business.

Strategy used to focus on initiatives that guided the collective corporate direction gradually over a five-year horizon. It was safe to study alternatives for multiple years. It was normal to place bigger bets in the strategic plan out into years four and five. No need to pressurize day-to-day operations with strategic imperatives. There was plenty of time. Not so these days. Like many companies, GSF moved to a three-year strategic planning cycle. That worked, and it remains GSF’s strategic planning horizon. But more was needed.

Innovation used to be only for tech companies or only for new product development. Occasionally, something big would come along for day-to-day operations that felt like innovation, but most days not. Most days, operations got a series of boosts from LEAN, Six-Sigma and continuous improvement teams. The preponderance of those team projects focused on incremental efficiency or quality improvements. “True innovation” was often seen as happening elsewhere. Not so these days.

GSF has embraced the notion of an innovation continuum. Innovations, on one end of the continuum, can come from basic process improvements. All associates have a voice and innovative ideas, and change needs to be viewed as a good thing. On the other end of the innovation continuum, new-to-the-world processes, products and business models deserve GSF’s attention, too. The pace of these changes is accelerating throughout the innovation continuum.

Sounding the alarm! In early 2019, more than 100 GSF leaders met in a two-day, off-site thought leadership meeting. An outside speaker helped kick off the event with a fast-paced, in-your-face, wake-up-call message that change was never going to slow down, only go faster. It was riveting. Everyone was energized and ready to talk about how GSF could further embrace change and do even more, faster with innovation.

Later in that same off-site meeting, GSF held a “speed-ideation” session on innovation. Table groups wrote the brainstormed answers to the same three questions on white tablecloth paper. The whole room was a buzz with energy and passion about what could be done. After moderators wrapped the session, the brainstorming lists were collected for later consolidation.

Now it was clear. GSF was ready to pull strategy conversations closer to innovation conversations. With the speed of change happening all around us, strategy and innovation need to be closely linked. In many ways, the full continuum of innovation (from continuous improvement to new-to-the-world) must be interwoven into our strategies. We got it. So, what next?

First, a little background. GSF is a large, private food & beverage processing and logistics services provider to over 100 name-brand customers We’ve been in business nearly 75 years and feed five billion people every day through more than 125,000 locations worldwide. So we put our customers first and generally work quietly in the background. In 2018, GSF made a purposeful decision to invest in capturing value from the newest digital technologies. We embraced the mantra “Think Big, Start Small, Go Fast.” GSF scoped and funded three pilot projects that leveraged different combinations of IoT, blockchain and AI. We started small and went fast. Two of the pilots “failed fast.” One of the pilots has moved forward and has helped shape our thinking about digital transformation and supply chain visibility. Equally important, the notion of “Think Big, Start Small, Go Fast” now has broad exposure throughout GSF.

GSF is spending 2021 developing the GSF 2022 to 2024 Strategic Plan. We needed ways to stimulate our best thinking with broad participation. GSF is using these work streams early in the strategic planning process to unlock as much great thinking, conversation and collaboration as possible on:

  • 2030 Vision Teams
  • Outside Advice on Industry Trends
  • Associate Engagement for Strategy Inputs

Many of you seek outside advice on impactful trends, and hopefully all of you find ways to engage your associates, solicit their ideas and covert the best ideas to actions. GSF regularly gets outside advice, and we frequently seek associate ideas. The 2030 Vision Teams were a new process for GSF, which proved to be a great success. Let us share with you the objectives, process guidance, and success highlights.

GSF’s 2030 Vision Teams were formed as part of GSF’s strategic planning process with several objectives in mind:

  • Gather bright minds to discuss what trends and technologies will impact GSF by 2030
  • Conduct ideation conversations unconstrained by investment limits and near-term competing priorities
  • Broaden the strategy and innovation dialog to include more GSF leaders early in the strategic planning process
  • Stimulate energy and spark renewed recognition around the speed of change

We organized six teams, averaging 10 GSF bright minds per team. We selected the six team captains first, and then let team captains recruit their own team members. Draft team rosters were collected to ensure diversity and inclusion. Fortunately, team captains made great draft picks, and no roster adjustments were needed.

The six 2030 Vision Teams had 12 weeks to answer these questions within a limit of 10 slides:

  • What trends will impact your business group the most by 2030?
  • What new technologies will become practical for day-to-day use in your business?
  • What can we be doing in 2022-2024 to prepare for the 2030 future and help create a sustainable competitive advantage?

Each 2030 Vision Team managed their own time over the 12 weeks before final presentations. Most teams had virtual meetings for a couple of hours once or twice a week. Each team came up with their own team name. Determining a team name during each team’s first couple of meetings provided an opportunity for collaboration and a chance to express a little creativity – a fun twist.

Presentation dates were set with thoughtful instructions. Allow 30 minutes for slide presentations and 30 minutes for dialog and questions. Team captains introduced the teams, and multiple team members presented for each team. The audience would be the GSF Strategy Council, a group of 27 senior leaders in GSF, including our chairman and CEO and business group presidents.

The six hour-long 2030 Vision Team meetings were a big success. Presenters paused at the end of each slide (10 slides per team), and Strategy Council members actively engaged with questions and dialog. The virtual meeting energy was high, and the two-way dialog created a memorable connection between team members and GSF senior leaders. Sixty team members in total had the opportunity to share views about the future and about how GSF could be best prepared.

The cross-pollination of ideas continues. The 2030 Vision Team members are becoming participants in the traditional three-year strategic planning process. The great dialogs just completed about what is coming our way and what GSF can do in 2022-2024 to be on top of our game in 2030 all get pulled into strategy trade-off discussions. We have a heightened level of collaboration. Our speed to spot trends and define opportunities has improved across the board, in large part thanks to the shared experience of exercising our strategic thinking muscles.

Speed and connectedness are part of a successful recipe for strategic planning. By no coincidence, these two key elements are often part of successful innovations along the innovation continuum. Golden State Foods is committed to reinventing and modifying our processes to keep pace with the speed of change that is ever-accelerating. Hopefully, sharing this slice of our GSF story can help other foodservice industry companies with ways to engage associates, foster innovation and build strategies with an eye towards 2030. 

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