Although the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index® shows a steady increase in consumer confidence since last October, a number of economic indicators leave business owners anxious about making significant capital investments. But it's important to keep the innovation going, even in uncertain economic times. And there is no better example of this than Sara Lee Corp., this month's Operation Review.
When I think of Sara Lee, I automatically think “innovation.” I'm sure that isn't surprising to some folks, given my R&D background. Plus, I've seen its recently opened innovation center — The Kitchens of Sara Lee — which is truly state of the art. But that's beside the point. When you read the article, you'll understand that to Sara Lee, innovation is more than a corporate mindset. Innovation runs far deeper than simply developing new products.
It's easy for many wholesale bakers to think, “if we only had half the assets Sara Lee has, we could focus on innovation, too,” but it isn't necessarily about financial assets. If you have the right people in place and the vision to think outside the box, then maybe you're halfway there.
Sara Lee operates an Open Innovation portal, a website that encourages consumers to submit innovative ideas, technology or solutions that mesh with the company's own strategic goals. There, it explains its concept of innovation:
“Today, innovation is about much more than new products. It is about reinventing business processes and developing new markets and networks that meet untapped customer and consumer needs. We do this by making connections beyond the boundaries of our organization and reaching out to our customers, consumers, partners, knowledge institutions, adjacent industries and global markets.”
The culture of innovation is changing — not only at Sara Lee, but across many organizations. Thinking about new ideas that improve production, customer service, quality and many other aspects of the business is no longer left solely to upper level managers or designated researchers. Encouraging a culture where employees share their innovative ideas gives people a sense of empowerment, no matter what level they are in the organization.
While managers can not mandate innovation, they can infuse the culture of open innovation into their businesses. After all, innovative thinking won't negatively affect the company's bottom line, especially in a down economy.