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Oreo Cookies Kept Crumbling. Here's How the Company Fixed the Problem — By Listening to Its Workers Leaders need to listen to the employees on the front lines. Here are five ways to do that, and improve your organization.

By Jeff Wetzler

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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It all started when a man peeled back a fresh pack of Oreos, only to find a crumbled mess of broken cookies. Disappointed, he bought another package, only to discover the exact same issue.

As luck would have it, this gentleman was actually a member of the board of Mondelez International, the parent company of Oreo, to whom he quickly brought the issue.

The CEO at the time, Irene Rosenfeld, was stunned. If a quality control issue had shown up in the cookies of one of her own board members, chances were there were already crumbled Oreos in packages all over the country or even the world. How had this happened? Every Oreo factory had systems in place to catch and fix exactly this type of problem. And why was she just finding out about it now? Irene decided that the best way to find out what had gone wrong in the packaging system was to ask the people at the frontlines: the factory workers.

It turned out that the Oreo plant that was packaging the cookies had recently installed a new machine that could package up to six times the number of cookies at once compared to the previous machines. But something had clearly gone awry with this machine, and the cookies were crumbling – something those on the line were most likely aware of.

If only the company could have tapped into the knowledge of front-line workers before it was too late, so much time and money could have been saved. This experience led Irene to wonder, what would need to change for the organization to consistently tap its own collective intelligence? What would it look like to be an organization that centers asking and learning in its strategy and decision making?

Find Wisdom in the Front Line

In my experience, the most valuable, and essential, source of ideas, knowledge, and information in any organization lies in its employees, particularly those closest to the front-lines. Teachers, nurses, factory workers, customer service representatives, sales staff, retail employees, cashiers, and truck drivers are all examples of employees whose proximity to real "action" gives them access to information largely invisible to those higher up in the organization.

While "tapping the frontline" has become widely acknowledged as an organizational necessity, few companies have successfully moved from theory to effective practice. Efforts to involve the frontline are typically too superficial or disconnected for employees to trust that any time and energy they invest will affect decision making.

I made this mistake while leading a five-year expansion project at Teach for America. All the key metrics were ticking up, except one: morale amongst teachers and staff was steadily declining. My team realized that we couldn't simply apply, top-down, whatever ideas we drummed up in our meeting room, we needed information that only those on the front lines could access. Meanwhile, the extent of our "asking" among teachers and staff had been limited to surveys, focus groups, and interviews. Teachers doubted these efforts would produce useful change, and therefore didn't take them seriously. We had to get curious about what they really thought, knew, and felt – something we actually couldn't discover without asking.

We then needed a different and better way to learn from our people. We had to make it safe for people to share what they really thought, so we opened up about the challenges and dilemmas we were working on with teachers and administrators, then asked quality questions designed to surface their best ideas on how to address them. We listened deeply to learn what only those on the front lines could teach us, and then built that knowledge into the changes we made. Morale skyrocketed, and the project was a huge success.

This experience taught me that the job of leaders isn't to come up with the solutions. It's to get really curious about the experiences and knowledge hidden in the minds of employees and to build the culture and systems that unlock their collective genius.

Here are 5 strategies for finding wisdom in the frontlines:

  1. Reduce the effects of power dynamics by acknowledging that you have a dilemma or puzzle and need their partnership to take it on. Name the value you see and place in their perspective.
  2. Let them know in advance how final decisions will be made and what roles they will play in making and/or influencing the decisions. Let the decisions get made as close to the front lines as you can.
  3. Let them in on the challenge by exposing them to all the data points you can, while asking them to help you revise your understanding of the issues by adding additional information they see.
  4. Empower them to develop new solutions by asking "how might we…" questions and generating as many creative ideas as possible before any ideas are evaluated or deprioritized. Invite them to prioritize the solutions they see as most relevant and share their reasons why.
  5. Consistently reflect back to employees how their ideas and feedback informed organizational decisions. When you can't act on their ideas or feedback or can't respond right away, let them know why and what you plan to do next.

Whether you lead a company or work on a team, you are in a position to build asking more deeply into your workplace, and you'll see immediate benefits from doing so.

This essay was excerpted from Jeff Wetzler's book, Ask: Tap Into the Hidden Wisdom of People Around You for Unexpected Breakthroughs In Leadership and Life. Copyright © 2024. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Jeff Wetzler is co-CEO of Transcend, a nationally recognized innovation organization, and author of the book Ask: Tap Into the Hidden Wisdom of People Around You for Unexpected Breakthroughs In Leadership and Life. As an expert in learning and human potential, and with leadership experiences spanning more than 25 years in business and education, Jeff has served as a management consultant, a learning facilitator for leaders around the world, and as Chief Learning Officer at Teach For America.

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