Unilever Refreshment bolsters its performance with Agile working

01 October 2020 Consultancy.eu 3 min. read

Unilever’s Refreshment team in the Benelux has come under the global spotlights within the company, for a successful Agile transformation that has enabled the unit to enhance both its internal operations as well as employee experience.

With a workforce of over 155,000 employees providing products to people in 190 countries worldwide, Unilever is one of the globe’s largest consumer goods companies.

To better respond to changing customer needs, the Benelux management team of Unilever Refreshment (part of the Foods & Refreshment division) last year launched an Agile transformation program. Using the Agile way of working, the consumer giant aims at shortening the time to market for new products, through more flexible and adaptable processes, and enhancing the product conceptualisation and development process.

Elaborating on the background for the transition to Agile, Joost Houben, Marketing Director at Unilever Refreshment Benelux and one of the programme’s leaders, “Consumers demands are changing, and we need to respond to changing market dynamics more quickly and adequately. However, at the same time we need to run our business as effectively as possible, with focus on growth. To achieve this, we need to change the way we work.”

Unilever Refreshment bolsters its performance with Agile working

He added that Agile’s positive contribution to productivity will down the line also enable a healthier work-life balance for employees, while making their jobs more enjoyable on the back of Agile’s principles of transparency, empowerment and rapid delivery of tangible results. 

Unilever approached Xebia to support with this transition. While Agile formed the outset, from the very start the combined project team took a holistic view. “Agile was not our goal, but it was a means to an end. We used the key principles of Agile to create a new way of working, with more focus and fewer distractions from emails, apps, and tasks that didn’t belong on that employee’s plate,” said Houben. 

In Agile fashion, a bottom-up approach was followed to build a collaborative and inclusive strategy. Houben: “Seven teams, called Squads, were part of the project. We talked to team members, identified pain points, and started removing causes for frustration one by one, sometimes by just making a minor change, and in other cases by pushing through more far fetching improvements.”

One of the most tangible changes made was the introduction of Kanban. A Japanese invention in the performance improvement space, Kanban improves the workflow by making visible who needs to do what and when they need to do it. A Kanban board provides people with insight, overview, and peace of mind. 

Along with Kanban, “We implemented other Scrum methods as well, like daily Standups, but made sure not to burden the teams with unnecessary theory and jargon,” said Houben. 

Reaping the benefits

Fast forward roughly a year and Unilever is reaping the benefits of Agile working. According to internal estimates, Unilever’s Refreshment division has since adoption realised a 25% growth in project capacity, which translates into a similar improvement of innovative strength and time-to-market. 

“Simply put, we get more done. We can for instance now realise a new product based on a time frame of just six months. And,” Houben adds with a smile, “employees report a decrease in pressure.” 

Demonstrating the project’s impact, the Marketing Director put forward a number of metrics that symbolise success. “85% of our team members are happy with the way they work, 84% experience an improved focus, and 65% experience a better work-life balance. Consequently, 92% would recommend this way of working to colleagues and 95% state they would never want to return to the old situation.”

Having caught the eye of Unilever Global, the Dutch division is now receiving requests from international teams to share their experiences and best practices. 

Taking the time to recognise the value added by Xebia’s consultants who facilitated the change and served as subject matter experts on Agile, Houben said “Their role has been instrumental in getting this done.”