Dr. Julia Oberhofer
The family-owned food producer Hochland, known for its long and rich tradition, is embarking on new paths to keep the company strong and future-ready. After successfully experimenting with Design Thinking, the company recognized the potential of this approach, and it has since become a permanent fixture in its “method toolbox” for innovative solutions.
When the Learning Curve is Too Flat
The German company Hochland SE is one of the largest private cheese producers in Europe with subsidiaries on several continents. “With its long tradition, our company relies on well-established and highly functioning processes. In the case of some projects, however, the learning curve was too flat, said long-time employee Elena Zloteanu, today Design Thinking program manager at Hochland. “In developing new products, for instance, we did not always succeed in creating the customer enthusiasm we wanted, and there were also some product flops. Not only was this frustrating for the highly-motivated product manager, but also inefficient and therefore expensive. The goal was to establish an agile way of working that should include all innovation projects in addition to product development. Hochland tested Design Thinking and found its strong user focus particularly beneficial. In the meantime, it has been systematically implemented throughout the company.
Ambassadors Launching the Change
Hochland decided to implement Design Thinking in the company decentrally, via a network of ambassadors. Ten employees have thus been trained in Design Thinking. They come from different areas and are also located in different countries. As Design Thinking ambassadors, employees were approached who have a fundamental open-mindedness towards new and playful approaches. These qualities are enhanced by Design Thinking training and methodically underpinned. Employees in Germany, Russia, Romania and Poland take on the ambassador role while maintaining their daily responsibilities and continuing to serve in their specialist positions. The ambassadors are thus active in a wide variety of positions and in their own working context—with ideas but also with comprehensive interventions. To propagate this approach in the company, it was important to make the working manner and (intermediate) results from the Design Thinking activities visible: “With the Design Thinking projects we were often on the go somewhere in our company, as opposed to “hiding away” in conference rooms. “Colleagues see us in a brainstorming session or building prototypes in the breakroom and then a conversation ensues or someone volunteers to become a test subject. The inhibition level sinks and curiosity is aroused.” It was finally the first successful practice cases that helped to anchor Design Thinking in the company: “If a project team has already been working for a long time on a question but has reached a dead end, we are sometimes called to help out. Often all it takes is a small intervention for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place and create a space for creativity,” Zloteanu said. “And if the Design Thinker has proven him or herself as a troubleshooter, colleagues recognize the value of the approach and then the next time go directly to the ambassador when setting up a project.” The number of interventions has picked up speed – Elena Zloteanu has given over 60 Design Thinking workshops in companies in the last 5 years, with numerous workshops also organized by the country ambassadors.
New Mindset for a Successful Future
In its recently released company vision for 2025, Hochland presents its clear customer focus. Design Thinking sees management explicitly as a building block in reaching this goal. This even greater fixing of the method in the company is an outstanding confirmation of the ambassadors and their work so far on Design Thinking projects. However, for Elena Zloteanu Design Thinking is much more than a set of tools. “It is more a mindset—this is where its strength stems from. “This mindset is gaining more and more traction in the corporate culture through the work of the ambassadors, and it contributes to us achieving our vision,” says Elena Zloteanu. In the meantime, the Design Thinking mindset has shown up in a variety of projects, in cooperation with the machine builders of the Hochland subsidiary Natec, as well as in the Human Resource Department. Just recently, a project on Generation Z started. It focuses on future generations of consumers who, at the same time, are already impacting today’s consumer market. Young people are therefore deeply involved on both the customer side and in the project team at Hochland. Elena Zloteanu is enthusiastic about the scope of the initiative. “This goes far beyond market research: we are building relationships and gaining deep insight into the mentality and needs of our future customers. We are a company with tradition, but with an orientation that clearly looks toward the future.”