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Lessons learned: achieving packaging department success

Our third annual Lessons Learned survey draws more than 700 participants who weigh in on what leads to packaging department success.

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We were taken aback at the enthusiastic response to our latest Lessons Learned survey for 2008. In 2006, we had more than 150 respondents, and last year, 444 answered our online survey questions. Our latest survey, conducted in May 2008, drew more than 700 participants, all with an insight to share that we have edited for clarity. Respondents again came from a broad range of packaging industry segments, including packagers such as Kraft Foods, Pepsico, P&G, Schering-Plough, Unilever Mexico, and dozens of others.

This year, Packaging World asked four major questions that we’ll report on in this and subsequent issues. This initial report focuses on a fundamental question that yielded hundreds of thoughtful and insightful responses: Based on your experience, do you have any advice on how best to work with other departments within your company on packaging-related issues?

Like the U.S. within the global community, the world of packaging operates inside a larger sphere, with departments like Quality Control, or Production, or the one that seems to draw the most attention, Marketing.

Based on the number of repeated mentions, several recommendations appear universal, such as the obvious of need for good lines of communication. Here is an executive summary, if you will, of what it takes for the packaging department to work well with other departments within a company:

• Do your homework before proceeding.
• Bring all stakeholders in early.
• Have clear objectives.
• Make sure everyone is on the same page.
• Get buy-in.
• Gain empowerment.
• Use pictures and
samples where possible.
• Listen.
• Communicate early and often.

It’s apparent that these suggestions would work well universally at companies.

Communications commended

For many respondents, communication is the single most important factor to a packaging department’s ability to successfully cooperate with other departments in the enterprise. As one stated, “Communicate, communicate, communicate!” A Nestlé employee summed it up thusly: “Planning and communication is the key to success.”
Getting your point across again and again is crucial, noted this respondent, who recommended to “Communicate up to and beyond the point of redundancy.”

A number of replies noted that not just any communications will do, but in-person communications in particular. Wrote one, “Best are face-to-face meetings followed up with written summaries and action logs,” while another offered that “Talking face to face is key. E-mail does not work.”

Said another, “Don’t forget that sometimes you just need to get up from your desk and computer to have a face-to-face conversation. Good ideas don’t happen in a vacuum.”

For those companies and instances when e-mails cannot be avoided, you should provide emails with more impact, such as this response recommends: “Combine pictures and/or drawings with your e-mails. A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Sometimes it takes more than pictures, as this respondent indicates: “Show samples. Talk in tangibles, not abstractions, and share the knowledge.”

“Get other departments involved as early as possible,” said another respondent. “Show them why the packaging is the way it is. Physical samples are best.” Another took that recommendation one step further: “Functional samples are necessary.”

Another way of making ideas tangible was expressed in this reply: “Measure everything you can, because anything you measure you can improve.”

There are good communications, and then there are, well, other types, some of which hang on miscommunication due to the use of jargon. As in any industry, the world of packaging has its own language. Thus, education as part of communication is also part of packaging department success: “Teaching of basic packaging terminology would be helpful for effective communication,” noted one, and “Learn how to speak ‘technical’ to nontechnical groups,” said another. Offers a third, “Learn to hear their complaints and doubts. Remember that you are the packaging engineer, not everybody talks the same technical language.” “Ask yourself if your communications are burdened with unnecessary jargon,” wrote another.

And don’t forget to be patient: “Others don’t know and don’t understand packaging as well as you do,” noted one respondent.

Listen up

Communication isn’t merely about talking or e-mails, it’s also about listening, an underutilized skill practiced by the best managers. “Listening” came up again and again—some 30 survey takers specifically used the word in their responses.
Consider this example, which likely came from a wise and veteran manager: “Communicate fully. Listen to problems to see if you can help resolve them, even if they don’t apply specifically to your area of responsibility.”

One of the more thorough replies covered valuable ground in this area: “Always keep the lines of communication open, which means you not only need to be a good speaker, but also a good listener. Take what another department says and figure out how that impacts your department, look for ways to better utilize relations between the two groups, and then make sure that both teams agree and understand. Create a common vision of what you are trying to accomplish, keep them in the communication loop, and listen to their concerns. A common vision is a great way to keep turf wars to a minimum.”

“Turf wars” is synonymous with a silo mentality that can undermine any attempt at teamwork. In many companies, friction seems to occur naturally and regularly between production/engineering and sales/marketing. One who weighed in on that ongoing struggle wrote: “Make sure marketing understands the technical impact of some of their choices, and educate marketing about which options can be implemented currently with little or no cost.”

Wrote another, “Marketing has to realize what their limitations are regarding graphics for the type of packaging they are working with. You have to work with production and understand what their limitations and capabilities are.”

Again addressing marketing, one respondent wrote this: “Provide timely, proper feedback about product packaging from marketing and sales, and take immediate corrective measures.”

Projecting the proper attitude from the start is also important when working with other departments. One respondent put it this way: “Treat other departments as partners and seek out their input early in the process and often throughout the project.”

Another diplomatic trick-of-the-trade was expressed by this manager, who wrote: “Make sure you can explain your ideas in a way that does not make anyone feel ‘inferior.’” Still another stated: “Be sensitive to what everyone has to say.”

Yet it must be acknowledged that without a champion, a project is likely doomed, and a champion sometimes needs to provide an occasional nudge or push. Hopefully, that can be done diplomatically, but that is not always the case, as this suggestion states: “Communicate, confirm, communicate, and over-communicate. Be in their face until an action step is dealt with appropriately.”

Another voiced an even stronger approach: “I think there is no general recipe for project success; however, and even being polite in general, sometimes we have to kick some [butt] to move forward.”

However, suggestions for a true team approach, including cross-functionality, were numerous. Of those responses, some drilled down further, like this person: “Don’t get too many people involved, but use a small taskforce of competent professionals. And more importantly, give them full responsibility!”

For most, meetings are unavoidable and even advisable, but the question remains: How often to meet? Some said monthly, some said semi-monthly, and one said daily: “Each morning we have a production meeting, which includes individuals from different departments. We discuss yesterday’s production outcomes, today’s goals, and any important projects coming up. Open, honest, and timely communication is vital!”

The need for regular meetings was almost universal, but there were exceptions, like this respondent: “Conduct regular daily communication and updates, but avoid meetings.”

Another respondent reminds us of the value of gaining broad-based input: “Don’t be afraid to make use of your resources. Seek input from engineering to front-line employees. People experienced in operating equipment can generally provide you with insight often overlooked by ‘engineering expertise.’” This respondent concurred: “Use knowledge from all departments, ideas may come from places that you didn’t expect.”

For what they’re worth, we’d also like to share these responses:

• Set up a committee with a chairman who makes the final decision. Give everyone a chance to speak and act on each suggestion to validate it no matter how stupid it may sound.
• Listen and explore all suggestions, no matter how silly they sound at first!
• I tell them what I want, they do it.

Frankly, that last one sounds more like a dictator than a manager! For a more diplomatic view, we offer this observation from someone who pointed to the value of choosing the right company to work for in the first place: “Choose to work for a company that retains experienced employees. The experienced people will save your project a lot of time and error, and save your company a lot of money.”

Another related view was this savvy observation: “Key throughout an organization is creating a culture of honesty, openness, and willingness to accept and review new ideas.” That kind of empowerment comes from the top, and likely results in company-wide success.

This person sums it best in a way many would like to emulate: “We are proud of our product, and we care about our employees and their families. We get respect, give respect, and the rest of the team does their best as well. We have very few issues, and when we do, we resolve them together.”

As it’s long been said, experience is the best teacher, and we thank you for sharing your expertise through your own lessons learned with us and now with our readers.

To comment on this article or to share an insight of your own that was not mentioned, feel free to reach me at, and just put Lesson Learned on the subject line.
Next month: Lessons Learned about packaging materials.

To read the sidebar to this story, see Advice worth noting.

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