Guest Blog: Unleash Pixar-Like Creativity in Your Supply Chain Management Organization

October 3, 2014

By Jonathan Lofton. Originally published on the Kinaxis industry blog, 21st Century Supply Chain.

I recently read Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration and it got me wondering about creativity within supply chain management organizations. There’s obviously a level of magic at Pixar for them to be able to create 14 number one movies in a row. Evidence that the principles they’ve developed have merit is easy to see as Disney Animation Studios, led by Pixar’s President Ed Catmull and Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, who have now started producing blockbusters again (e.g. Frozen, the top-grossing animated film of all time, surpassing the $1.063 billion earned by Toy Story 3) after a long period of so-so animation movies.

I’m always curious if success in one area/industry can be translated to generate similar success in other areas/industries. In this case I do believe there are learnings that can be applied to supply chain management.

So what makes Pixar so creatively successful? How do they get from a movie that “sucks” to a blockbuster? And more importantly, can supply chain management leverage these learnings?

Kinaxis blog pic #2 Oct 2014

“What I’ve learned running Pixar applies to all businesses. I apply the term ‘creativity’ broadly… it’s problem solving. We are all faced with problems and we have to address them and think of something new and that’s where creativity comes in.”

– Ed Catmull, FastCompany article, “Pixar President Ed Catmull On How To Run A Creative Business”

                                                        At the back of the book Catmull has a lot of bullet points around thoughts for managing a creative culture, which at the end of the day isn’t exclusive to creative businesses, including:

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.
  • Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new.
  • The healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.
  • The process of problem-solving often bonds people together and keeps the culture in the present.
  • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
  • Imposing limits can encourage a creative response.
  • Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.

What stands out foremost in the book as the underlying factor of Pixar’s success is what they call the Braintrust. The Braintrust brings together a bunch of smart, passionate people to review a movie as it goes through its lifecycle. The folks that make up this group naturally include directors, producers, writers, and animators but it could also include individuals outside these typical creative areas. They use this Braintrust to create a healthy culture where people feel free to share ideas and to constructively criticize.

There are a few principles of the Braintrust that are vitally important: the individuals must be sharp and passionate; the team has to put a lot of solutions out in a short amount of time; and there has to be absolute candor – this is the premier guiding principle. I think the magic comes via another key tenant of the Braintrust: this group has no authority. The group can’t make the director change the movie. It’s their job to get to the essence of what’s wrong (Catmull says all Pixar movies “suck” at some point); it’s the director’s job to figure out how to address the feedback.

Okay, so how does this relate to supply chain management?

Well, these periodic Braintrust sessions remind me a lot of Consensus Demand Planning and Sales & Operation Planning (S&OP). Consensus Demand Planning incorporates various organizational views and possible biases on what the forecast looks like. Others in the organization are required to collaborate and creatively determine how to best balance supply & demand while optimizing company objectives (margin, inventory, revenue).

At the end of the day, the S&OP team may have several suggestions on what to do… but it’s the Executive S&OP (the “movie’s director”) that has the ultimate responsibility for absorbing the options and deciding how best to drive the company forward. So what if Consensus Demand Planning and S&OP looked and felt more like a group reviewing a movie’s “dailies” using Pixar Braintrust-like principles to collaboratively solve problems?

I tend to subscribe to the wisdom of crowds. I believe that if we can leverage tools that give end-to-end visibility to the strong, passionate professionals in our supply chain organizations and break down walls to encourage and support real time collaboration, we can also unleash Pixar-like creativity (and success). In support of the Braintrust principles, below is what I currently see on the creatively collaborative SCM continuum:

Kinaxis blog pic #1 Oct 2014 I’d appreciate additional wisdom from the supply chain crowd, as I’m sure there are other applications, approaches and principles out there that are really creative and bleeding edge. Do you have a formalized ‘Braintrust’ type process and the supporting tools for creative SCM? What are you doing (or seeing) in terms of SCM creativity?

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