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2009 R&D Team Winner: General Mills Gets Innovative with R&D Strategies

June 29, 2009
General Mills takes the cake (and the yogurt) in the $501 million in sales and greater cateogry for our 2009 Food Processing R&D Teams of the Year.

At General Mills, understanding consumers, product innovation and connective marketing have been in the forefront of the company’s strategy since its founding. But as technology flourishes and real-time information proliferates, bringing innovative and inventive products to market quickly is more challenging than ever.

Four years ago, General Mills created an open innovation strategy to bring together the brightest minds and best ideas, internally and externally. Two years ago, the program evolved into a revolutionary initiative: General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN).

It’s a tricky and audacious effort that involves tearing down some of the walls and the proprietary thinking rampant in the food industry. In return for a little honesty and even humility, General Mills product developers have people coming to them with ideas for new products.

G-WIN is an effort to get the word out and find new partners for General Mills -- whether they be entrepreneurs, inventors, universities or suppliers -- and to incorporate new technologies that complement its existing brands and businesses.

“There are two key elements to our program,” explains Jeff Bellairs, director of G-WIN, who has been with General Mills for 13 years. “One is our catalyst team or X-squad [X for external], a small, centralized group focusing on open innovation, which brings in the tools for best practices and acts as a catalyst to inspire our divisional resources. 

“When we originally created the program, we were focused on external innovation. Since then, we’ve realized that the important thing is connection – or what we call connected innovation. Recently, we created innovation entrepreneurs. Using resources based within the division, yet totally dedicated to open innovation, and building effective partnerships from outside can supply us with technology, products or some unique capability.”
G-WIN is not wholly about bringing outsiders’ ideas to market. Open innovation, according to Bellairs, starts with connecting more effectively with colleagues internally.    

“One great example is bringing our Progresso Light soup to market,” he says. “We brought 17 people from different divisions together to focus on weight management and technologies to come up with some great new platforms.”

One great insight came from the Yoplait business unit: that the Yoplait Light products were leading the category in growth. “When that insight was translated to the Meals Division, they came up with the idea of Progresso Light,” Bellairs says.

The internal work was augmented with work from a supplier that gave General Mills the technology to make a great-tasting light soup. Then, working through the external partner development group, General Mills negotiated a deal with Weight Watchers to put the 0 point endorsement for each serving on the product.

Another point is connecting more effectively with suppliers “For years, we kept our suppliers at arm’s length guessing what we were looking for. Now we are more explicit,” says Bellairs.

“After we adopted a more collaborative approach, one of our suppliers came back with a frozen smoothie kit prototype. It became the impetus for the launch of Yoplait Smoothie kits, launched in club stores last fall, where they became a tremendous success.” The Yoplait Smoothie kits will be launching nationally in U.S. retail stores this fall.

Another supplier came up with Pillsbury Savorings. “Our supplier had a unique technology, and we were able to combine our brand and marketing expertise to create a blockbuster success in the marketplace,” says Bellairs. “We continue to expand the Savorings line of products with the launch of Pillsbury Savorings Bread Bowl Bites. This is a platform we can build off of, and both General Mills and our partner are benefiting.”

Seven Lessons Learned in Building an Open Innovation Program
Know what you want
It’s about connectedness
Tear down the wall
Smart scientists aren’t enough
Score early
On-board the boss
Stick with it
– Jeff Bellairs, director of the G-WIN program

As for the most important attributes in new products, Bellairs says it starts with consumers and their unmet needs. “We are getting away from looking at the market as a big homogenous mix,” he says. “Rather we are looking at different segments and niches. We see benefits across taste, health and convenience.

“For many of our consumers, it’s all about balance. Certainly they want more healthful products, but there are those times when they want a bowl of Haagen-Dazs ice cream or chocolate devil’s food cake for a special occasion, so we are committed to innovating across those three broad platforms.”

Each division at General Mills partners with the G-WIN group, and success stories abound throughout the organization. To understand how R&D can take advantage of open innovation, we asked three R&D team leaders to discuss how the process has led to successful results for their groups.

Yoplait Smoothie

Yoplait Smoothie was launched in club stores first, and will launch in the retail market nationally this fall. “It addresses a need: Consumers love smoothies but don’t want to take the time and effort to make them at home,” says Arun Bansal, senior R&D manager within the Meals Division, who has been with General Mills for seven years.

Yoplait Smoothie is a blend of frozen fruit and yogurt. Consumers add a cup of milk, blend it for one to one and a half minutes and they have two cups of smoothies. “We started with Triple Berry, and will have Strawberry Banana and Strawberry Pineapple Mango flavors with the launch this fall,” he says. “They are very convenient, an excellent source of antioxidants, contain yogurt and conveniently replicate smoothies you’d get at venues like Jamba Juice.”

Working on this new product line was one scientist, one technician and Bansal, who managed the project. “Using capital structure we already had at General Mills, as well as our partner who makes the sauce chips for our frozen vegetables, we asked, ‘What if we use fruit?’ All the technical expertise was there,” says Bansal.

“We worked with our partner, who has account representatives right here in Minneapolis. Since the technical folks are at their technical facility, we held offsite meetings and held weekly conference calls to outline the project and work through the all details and requirements. Samples went back and forth to determine flavor optimization. We stay in close touch.”

Once the idea got started and gained traction, it only took a few months to get the product to market. “Rather than technical development, the big step in timing was getting the buyer commitment from club stores,” he explains. “Once they got on board, the product took off like wildfire, so we decided it could go to the retail market.

“Quick to market is very important,” he says decisively. “When we tested the product with consumers, it scored off the chart. They love the taste and the convenience and the fact that our Yoplait yogurt contains live and active cultures, which contribute to good health. We look forward to expanding options with other health-oriented flavors.”

As part of the development process at General Mills, employees are asked for feedback. “We have employee panels,” says Bansal. “We give them samples; they take the product home to their families and give us their opinions. And we have a company store, where employees can purchase our new products.”

The other part of the equation is the risk, according to Bansal. “No new capital investment was required, so it gave us the opportunity to experiment with this new idea. We went to club stores, because it is an excellent channel to test new products. Those factors enabled the national launch.”

Pillsbury Savorings and Bread Bowl Bites

“We had been working on appetizers here at Pillsbury and identified a product we produce in our Scotland plant and wanted to bring it to the U.S.,” says Chris Pike, R&D director of new products for Pillsbury and a General Mills employee for 25 years. The products was a flaky pastry bite. “But it wasn’t feasible to produce in Scotland and import to the states. We knew we had a winner, but didn’t have a way to easily reproduce the product within our manufacturing plant.”

Pike spoke to Mike Helser, a member of the G-WIN team, and he identified a Toronto contract manufacturer, Morrison Lamothe Inc., that appeared to have the capabilities to manufacture the product. “We talked with them and were really impressed by their capabilities and values, which are very similar to ours at General Mills,” says Pike enthusiastically. “We agreed to form a partnership to bring this appetizer idea to fruition.”

General Mills had some ideas on flavors, and parceled off a product they had developed for a U.S. retailer that was similar to what we wanted to introduce. Since Morrison Lamothe didn’t want to be in the branded business, but had the technical know-how, systems and capacity to make the product, even if it went national. Pillsbury had a great product concept, a great fit with the Pillsbury brand and the expertise to market, advertise and connect with consumers.

Pike committed three of his people to developing new ingredients for the fillings, fine-tuning the process and identifying needed new equipment. “We knew our customers wanted more chunks of meat in the filling. We brought some technologies to [Morrison Lamothe] and made changes in the product, ending up with three fantastic varieties we are very proud of and that I am happy to serve my family and friends.”

Pillsbury Savorings launched in the summer of 2008 in Cheese and Spinach, Mozzarella Pepperoni and Buffalo Style Chicken.

“It was a marriage of synergistic capabilities and strength,” says Pike. “For each of us, it would have been tough to go it alone. Morrison Lamothe allowed us to launch the product in less than a year, a year earlier than we expected, which for us was fantastic.

“We’ve been extremely successful with this launch in our first year, and it’s driven growth in the appetizer category,” says Pike. “We’ve been so pleased we just started shipping two new varieties called Bread Bowl Bites, also developed in a partnership fashion, also using this open innovation model to get to market quickly and leverage our partner’s strengths and ours.”

Bread Bowl Bites are mini bread bowls with dip inside and topped with cheese and bread crumbs. They come in two varieties – Artichoke and Spinach and Cream Cheese and Jalapeno. “They are hand held, one to two bites, a great combination of bread and savory in a more convenient form. They are ready made, just pop them in the oven for 15-16 minutes, and share. Or you can add a salad and have a great convenient dinner.
“We worked toward developing a product that had broad usage – not just as an appetizer, but also on those occasions when you are hungry for dinner but you don’t want to eat too much. You can relax, reconnect with your family and enjoy dinner without the work.”

Pike was delighted to discuss his experience with open innovation. “General Mills is a large company, but because our values are so broadly shared, I can walk into any plant and work on a project,” he explains. “Even if I haven’t met the team members before, we are an instant team. We share common goals, are here to get the job done and deliver to our consumers and shareholders.”

Betty Crocker Super Moist cake mix

It’s not just new products that result from the G-WIN program; existing products can be improved, as well. That was the case with Betty Crocker Super Moist cake mixes from the Baking Products Division.

“Our R&D team partnered with one of our current ingredient suppliers to look for a technical solution that would help us reduce the cost of our cake mix formulas, yet protect the great taste that consumers love about our Betty Crocker cake mixes,” says Karen Wilcox, R&D manager in the Baking Products division, and with General Mills for 10 years.

“One of the different tactics we took this time was to have a more open dialogue with our partner, sharing consumer insights on why our consumers like and prefer our cake, as well as the formulation and functionality of our cake mixes. We created a higher level of engagement by giving them that additional information, which allowed us to accelerate our timeline while still improving results.

“There were three things that contributed to the success of our partnership. [First] we were really clear up front that we wanted to be a partner, not just directing them what to do. Together we defined what the project objectives were, our roles and what the timing would be. We held weekly dialogues with the supplier during that development timeframe.

“The second thing is that we worked closely on a joint assessment of the work as it progressed. We executed a set of designed experiments and different solutions to find the best one. Our supplier created samples, sent them to us, and the two teams got together on a conference call and evaluated them together.

“The third thing is that when there were critical milestones, we got together in the same place. We took what we learned in the lab and applied it in our plant production setting, and our partner came to our plant to participate in those trials,” she says.

Sharing information in a real-time environment enabled a clear understanding, according to Wilcox. “It was a live sharing dialogue, and easier to understand. By doing that, the teams were able to avoid the back and forth travel which would have added time and cost to the project.

“Our development timeline was two months — very fast -- and the newly formulated mix will appear in stores this fall,” she says. “Due to the success we’ve had with this product, we are already applying this level of collaboration to the next generation of development and are looking to extend these best practices to our other projects. It’s becoming a new type of behavior within our group.”

Wilcox lauds the open innovation approach. “The ability to work more closely with current and new suppliers enables us to be more effective in the work we do and get the best solutions for General Mills more quickly than in the past,” she says. “Through the partnership with our external partner, our team was able to accelerate and elevate our project and still deliver the same great taste of our great cake mixes.”
“What these three examples demonstrate is that open innovation is not just about new products,” Bellairs points out. “It’s about working with suppliers more effectively for holistic margin management or healthier products.

“There is a whole host of benefits we are seeing with this approach,” he concludes. “It is our vision that at some point in the future everyone in R&D will have a role in our open innovation program and this new way of doing business, and that open innovation will be widely spread throughout the R&D organization.”

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