Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Novel Combinations: Making the Most of Too Much

Credit: the author went shopping
Charles Sanna died recently at 101 years old.  His family’s company, Sanna Dairy Engineers (sold to Beatrice Foods in 1967 and now a part of Conagra), delivered powered coffee creamer to the U.S. Army during the Korean War. 

Fearful of missing deliveries to the military, Sanna Dairy regularly overproduced, leaving the company with a perishable product destined for disposal.

Sanna took to the family kitchen in Wisconsin.  By combining water, cocoa, and the excess powdered creamer, he created what would become the Swiss Miss brand of instant hot cocoa.  It was a novel combination, a stroke of genius, and a windfall for Sanna’s company.

Constraint is often described as a key to innovation.  Not having enough of something can lead to all sorts of interesting ideas.  In the case of Charles Sanna, however, his motivation was excess.

In The Visible Hand (293-294), Alfred Chandler, Jr. tells the story of Henry Parsons Crowell (1855-1944), who, in 1882, constructed the first mill to grade, clean, hull, cut, package, and ship oatmeal under one roof.  It was a model of continuous-process with output so great that Crowell’s plant overwhelmed the traditional bulk market for oatmeal.  The result was excess—and the creation of Quaker Oats Cereal.

Credit: the author in the cereal aisle
Crowell used branding and promotion to turn a grain that some believed was better fed to horses into a popular breakfast cereal for America’s emerging mass market.
I have a business school classmate, George Maliekel, who once said (and profoundly, I think) that “inventory is the price a company pays for lack of information.” (see Richard Tedlow’s New and Improved, xix)  

If you subscribe to the genius of Henry Crowell and the late Charles Sanna, however, too much of a good thing is another of the rudiments of innovation and can be a hidden source of brilliant new ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Somehow you make reading about instant hot cocoa worth my time. How can you not love a person who refuses to through out a good batch of instant coffee creamer?