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Benelux CIO interview: Marijn Grevink, leader of digital transformation, Mars

In an interview with Computer Weekly, the digital head at Mars, Marijn Grevink, takes the wrapper off digital transformation at the company in the Netherlands

Mars needs a digital transformation and needs to do it now – not only on a local level, but also globally, according to Marijn Grevink, leader of digital transformation at Mars in Veghel in the Netherlands. 

With $40bn in annual sales, Mars Incorporated is one of the biggest family-owned companies in the world. The fact that it is a privately held company gives it the privilege to think in terms of generations, rather than quarters. This long-term view is reflected by one of the company’s mottos: “The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today.”

Grevink says change occurs so much faster nowadays that a company must be prepared to respond to disruption within 19 days – at least in theory. The accelerated rate of change is evidenced by the fact that it took the telephone 75 years to get to 50 million people, but more recently, Pokémon Go only needed 19 days to get to the same number of users.  

“Like most companies, it would be a challenge for us to have an answer on disruption within 19 days,” he said. “We need to transform our organisation and actively build towards a resilient and agile future. We aren’t there yet, but we do have quite a good idea of how to get there. And we believe we can learn from others.”

The sweet spot on the road to success 

The company wants to transform from being an intuitive-driven to data-driven one, to enable Mars associates to make data-driven decisions based on expert knowledge. They also want to eliminate repetitive work. 

Grevink thinks that to be successful at digital transformation, you need three essential building blocks that make up a metaphoric lighthouse: the foundation, the superstructure, and the beacon. If one of those items is missing, you don’t have a functional lighthouse. 

The foundation consists of processes. It’s the “how” of daily business. In the case of Mars, it’s how the company creates confectionery. The foundation is about operational excellence, total predictive maintenance, lean manufacturing, health and safety, and food quality. 

The second building block is the superstructure. These are the tools that underpin processes. Mars already has a lot of well-established applications, but it is looking for new applications and wants to make sure they pick the right ones. They apply two principles to help make the right choices: “revolutionary innovations” and “evolutionary innovations”. 

“Evolutionary innovations are about looking at where we are today, what problems we face, and how we might solve them,” explains Grevink. “We incrementally build towards the future. This is a very safe way of innovating. It’s also very slow – it’s like walking through a forest. The forest is covered in thick fog, and you can barely see the next tree in front of you. You walk to that tree, and then the next tree will appear in front of you again.”

“Revolutionary innovations allow us to take a more daring view. Instead of starting from today, we imagine the future we want to create. For example, we look at how we want our factory of the future to look. Then we look at what we need to do now to make sure we get there.”  

The beacon is about setting a mission and communicating it. The people are the beacon, according to Grevink. Without the people, a tool will not deliver any value. People create value – the tools just facilitate. 

“Without a mission, no matter what you do, you will probably lack the focus and the purpose that will inspire your people,” said Grevink. “It’s essential to set the clear purpose that the company and the teams can aspire to achieve.”

“But having this mission doesn’t mean that we can relax,” warns Grevink. “We all make mistakes once we embark on the mission. But you have to accept mistakes in order to innovate.”

One bite at a time 

Because developments in technology can overtake a company within five years, Mars must always be ready for the next step, according to Grevink. Technology changes so fast that the digital transformation team at Mars tries to work in sprints, performing a series of quick actions helps them learn quickly.  

“Going fast in an organisation the size of Mars is possibly the biggest challenge,” says Grevink. “Our approach is to place more intelligent bets that are high risk. But we do this in a way that allows us to iterate many times so we can learn quickly. This is the essential concept of ‘trying fast and failing fast to win fast’.”

“My team tries and fails often, in order to win in the end. And this is something we do not just do within our team, we do this with the entire site. We believe that we can only be successful at transforming our factory if we avoid working in isolation. We need to include the whole site – and even the whole company. It all starts with getting the mission, vision, and strategy right from a regional perspective.”

“That’s why our roadmaps are formed with the help of regional organisations. We have a steering committee that owns the roadmaps and has a strong connection to the local sites because it’s not something that we can push top down. All sites have to buy into it, so we make sure we involve the sites from the beginning.” 

Based on the mission, the digital transformation team frequently produces small operational building blocks that deliver value immediately. “We involve end users every step of the way,” said Grevink. “We sit next to them in the control rooms, next to them on the lines and ask them to test some things for us. We take this feedback directly to our developers and they improve the solution incrementally.”

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