The Cookie Factory: How a Burnout Led to Liberation
It's early in the morning, we are in a village in the middle of Holland and are surrounded by delicious cookie smells. This to nobody’s surprise, since we are in the canteen of a local cookie factory.
The factory was founded by Art Veldt in the 1970's. Some 10 years ago it was bought by Kees Pater and it seems he’s exactly the kind of hero we are searching for.
Recently we received an invitation by Kees to visit his factory and now he is making us a tasteful coffee like a real barista. When he offers us to try one of their ‘home-made’ cookies, we simply can't refuse. We enjoy the cookie while he starts to share his remarkable story.
As we shared in a previous post about Frank van Massenhove, lots of people don’t believe that a high degree of freedom for employees leads to better results. When we tell people about our mission to inspire people and organizations to make a change to more happiness and success, we often get similar responses.
Disbelief is the one we hear most. The skepticism is even higher as soon as we talk about increased freedom in governmental or production settings. The story about Frank showed the amazing results he achieved in a governmental setting. The following story of Kees and his cookie factory Veldt will prove you that the same is possible in production settings.
The cookie story begins..
The story starts in 2004, the moment Kees takes over the cookie factory from the family Veldt. He inherits a typical traditional family business with plenty of room for the well-known hierarchical pyramid. At that moment the factory employs around 15 employees and produces a yearly revenue of about 1.5 million euro. Kees decides to push the boundaries a bit harder and achieves to double the amount of employees.
Within no time he boosts the yearly revenue to about 4 million euro. However, the fast growth comes with a cost. The employees are complaining non-stop and his people are regularly burned-out. Kees doesn’t have eyes for this since he is too busy facing his own personal struggles. Until the moment he hits rock bottom himself. Some hefty personal issues force him to absence for a few weeks.
To our surprise, Kees frankly admits that the period of absence is the best he ever went through. He slowly starts to realize that he doesn’t have any pleasure in his work. He hates leading the factory in the traditional manner. When he finally, after 4 weeks of absence, returns at the factory he realizes that all this time the cookie business continued as usual. As if he never had left in the first place.
His employees proved that all his control mechanisms are not needed as much as he always thought they were. He decides that he wants to change his leadership radically but doesn’t know where to start. He chooses to search help from outside.
The search for a happier way of working
The combination of two consultant companies help Kees in his liberation mission. In this case it seemed to be a receipt for success. The mission turns out to be a trajectory of about 9 months in which Kees decides to give more power and trust to his employees. Collectively they decide to turn around the hierarchical pyramid.
Kees underlines his views by stating: "when I'm gone for a week, the company continues to do just fine. When the production staff is gone for a week, the whole company comes to a standstill." The operators of the cookie factory place themselves on top of the pyramid and can now decide on the majority of the issues. Suddenly Kees finds himself, as the owner of the company, at the bottom of this very same organization chart.
He is fine with it, he knows that the ‘person behind the cookie’ is the most important factor in this business. His role has evolved from being the boss to being a source of inspiration, innovation and rebelliousness. And he loves it! He is finally doing what he really likes to do. Not controlling what the workforce is doing, but supporting their work and looking for new ways to do business. He is back to what he loved to do: being an entrepreneur.
Kees wants to make clear that it's not suddenly total anarchy within the factory. There are still clear rules to respect;
- The main goal of the company is continuity. This is of everybody’s interest and should be respected by everyone involved.
- All employees have to contribute and work according the collective vision, values and goals of the organization, including Kees. Kees has an important role to keep the company on the right track when it comes to the vision, values and goals.
- Instead of the heavy control mechanisms of the past, now all employees report to each other about their work on a monthly basis.
- Every week 1 random chosen employee is responsible for all activities within the factory. This person is stimulated to use this week to explore and initiate novel improvements to the production process (using this time to improve their own process is not allowed).
- There should always be room to grow personally. Kees believes that organizations can only grow in a sustainable manner if the employees have room and opportunities to grow. To achieve this they provide a high degree of transparency and ask themselves constantly what they need in order to grow.**
Then suddenly, in the middle of our animated conversation, an older man steps into the canteen and asks Kees if their meeting is still going on. We are all surprised, we totally forgot about the time. Apparently, more than 2 hours have passed already. It is a shame because we really wanted to visit the factory floor as well. We tell this to Kees and he directly soothes us. We can always come back to spend the day baking cookies in the factory, and we can always bring a bunch of friends.
We will grab this opportunity with both hands. We will be back!
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We have waited far too long since Ricardo Semler's radical 'experiment' of liberating a hierarchical workplace to see more organisations working in this way. We now seem to have reached a tipping point where large and small organisations in diverse sectors are realising there are benefits to all in rethinking traditional hierarchies. Thanks for sharing this story
In early 2018 I took on a new challenge. After two years in the popular management world I decided to take a leap into academic life. I started a part-time PhD program in Business at the VU University Amsterdam. Since then I have researched how large organizations (with thousands of employees) can scale and organize without the need for middle management. It’s time to share what we’ve learned.