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Apr 21, 2020 7:56:48 AM7 min read

The Right Spark

By John Duque Restrepo - VP of Supply Chain

No, it is not a song. Nor is it a declaration of love. It is a momentous search that I carried out over the last two years for the solution to the most brutal professional challenge that I have come up against. Let me tell you all about it

Luker Chocolate is a company with over 113 years of history. However, just 10 years ago, we decided to internationalize and take our chocolate across the globe. With our hopes set on this goal, we realized that we had to face new challenges. Selling chocolate to industry and manufacturing final products for other companies is a business that has nothing to do with what we have done for 100 years in Colombia; serving companies instead of end consumers and selling in 42 countries rather than just one, are completely different challenges.

So when I took on the role of director of manufacturing and subsequently vice president of the supply chain at Luker Chocolate, I was assigned, alongside my team, the mission of drastically raising the level of production fulfillment, satisfying the service guarantee for our customers, stabilizing production costs and designing the expansion plan for the production plant and logistics warehouses, considering the new international market we were facing.

How could we achieve this? "Increase the efficiency of industrial and logistics operations, regulate inventories and reach the level of service promised to your customers": voilà you are a COO (Chief Operations Officer) 10/10. Surely you will also have a good cost performance, healthy working capital and, of course, happy customers. More applause, you are the Messi of operations management.

And what happens if one day this formula fails? What happens when traditional methods do not suffice? What happens when your supply chain does not react to the classic engineering stimuli in all of its different iterations? Welcome to my world.

I have been immersed in industrial operations for 11 years: many hours of sweat, as many tears, and few of sleep. An engineering degree, two masters, several diplomas. And all for what? To understand that in the end, we are so infinitely vulnerable, that regardless of everything you know, a machine will have technical problems, the production plant is going to stop and no matter the number of supply and distribution statistical models, someday your customer will end up without your product. We are human, and we are not perfect; we cannot be arrogant enough to think that everything we do is fail-safe.

Let me tell you what has always kept me standing and looking towards the future: the capacity for transformation of the human spirit. Take my word for it, this is the energy that fills me up every day, that inspires me to see through other people’s eyes, that fills me with happiness on seeing how raw materials become a product with a history that can change someone's day and make them smile.

The spirit: A new factor in the equation

It was precisely by means of that spirit that I began to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It was clear that innovation in the new model for the Luker Chocolate supply chain had little or nothing to do with numbers, statistical models and continuous improvement methodologies. It was about innovation in productivity from a human and non-technical point of view. It was a blow against a fortified barrier from an unarmoured warrior; it was the spark I was looking for.

We had to get to work on the task of designing the operation strategy for the entire Luker Chocolate supply chain, and it needed to be fast, effective, but, above all, genuine. It had to be ambitious, we had to dream big, we needed to aim for the stars. What would be expected of a strategy proposal that a whole team of engineers had worked on? What was the result? Raising our people’s spirits. But that was the way it was, we had taken on an enormous task, everybody in the production plants, in the distribution centres and in the administrative offices had to be connected body and soul to our purpose.

We gave up prioritizing production costs and customer service levels; we had to attend to ourselves first.

Something had to stick

The first step was clear; we had to create an identity. To do this, we initially focused on manufacturing and communicating the three rules of the game ad infinitum: participatory leadership, two-way communication, and leaving a mark.

Participatory leadership meant delegating workload, it was a way of asking for help from the entire team and telling them that the more people who rowed the boat, the faster it would go. It meant empowering, letting go, accompanying and encouraging. Encouraging and supporting. Less Messis, more teams. Remember that we are vulnerable and we will always need help.

Two-way communication was not understood to be any different from situations where Directors and Bosses would initiate conversations with their collaborators, or those where the collaborators would take the initiative. Hierarchies are mental, but respect and dialogue are universal. Here the focus was to train ourselves in how to talk. A rather funny anecdote came out of this: my office was nicknamed The Doctor’s Office, as normally from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. conversations arose between collaborators, people who just wanted to dream and improve their way of doing things, but needed the wings to do it.

Leaving a mark was what the plant workers were achieving with their work; only they did not know it. Behind their effort was a higher purpose that started with The Chocolate Dream and that finally matured in our chocolate becoming a tool for change.

We had valuable conversations with our people, we were sensitive, empathetic and we opened our doors because we needed to become obsessed with sensing that positive energy flowed in the production plant, I became obsessed with seeing the day when people would look us in the eye when we talked to them. We listened to the market and applied consumer knowledge techniques, but this time the market was our plant and the consumer each of our white-overalled soldiers who give it their all to really make our chocolate a tool for change.

A change in organisational structures, the redesign of operations, and technical rigor

The rules of the game that I talked about earlier were not enough to overcome the challenge. When it comes to people, we have to rethink methods and technology so that everything progresses in the most harmonious and balanced way possible; management based only on the technical aspects and with soft skills is like food without salt.

At this point, it was necessary to enlist the entire technical arsenal of operations management to bring changes in methods and technology to the table.

Regarding the methods, among other things, an aggressive plan to increase efficiency was launched, a plan that had three characteristics: it was practical, easy to understand and very, very technical. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, was the change in the production plant administration’s entire organizational structure. If we wanted participatory leadership, two-way communication and for our people to leave their mark, the administrative structure should be prepared to manage these practices.

In technological terms, the Master Plan for Industrial and Logistics Operations was formulated with the objective of doubling the chocolate production capacity and preparing the company's 5-year technological development path. An 18-month plan was launched; today we only have four months of it left.

The last drop makes the cup run over

Indeed. If you hammer enough, one of the nails must go in. Surprisingly, like an avalanche, the entire manufacturing system began to react, the level of customer service began to improve, inventories began to regulate themselves, production costs stabilized and people began to smile. As the cherry on the cake, 7 months after the launch of this strategy, the plant achieved record production. Not even in my wildest dreams would I have thought that this was possible.

Sometimes the best future planning is achieved by looking to the past, and Luker Chocolate’s past and present are imbued with closeness and familiarity, as principles that are tied to our history. We just needed to embrace these two elements and push them forward in a transparent and genuine way, because that is how principles and values should be treated, they can never be used as pawns in a game of chess.

If you ask me what the innovative element of this story is, I would tell you that it was in taking people out of the classic resource analysis - industrial engineers will know what I mean -. For us, people are not and will never be seen as a resource, they will always be people.

And how are we doing today? There is still a long way to go, there are so many things that can be improved and, most importantly, there are still conversations to be had. But the journey is more pleasant when small triumphs are celebrated.

Never forget that "everything burns if you apply enough spark."

I present to you the people who worked this magic: