Unleash Pixar-like Creativity in Your Supply Chain Management Organization

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I recently read “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” and it got me wondering about creativity within supply chain management organizations. There’s obviously a level of ‘magic’ at Pixar, for them to be able to create 14 No. 1 movies in a row. 

Evidence that the principles they’ve developed has merit is easy to see as Disney Animation Studios, led by Pixar's Ed Catmull (President) and John Lasseter (Chief Creative Officer), has now started producing blockbusters again (e.g. Frozen, the top-grossing animated film of all time, surpassing the $1.063 billion earned by Toy Story 3) after a long period of so-so animation movies. I’m always curious if success in one area/industry can be translated to generate similar success in other areas/industries. In this case I do believe there are learnings that can be applied to supply chain management.

So what makes Pixar so creatively successful? How do they get from a movie that “sucks” to a blockbuster? And more importantly, can supply chain management leverage these learnings?

“What I’ve learned running Pixar applies to all businesses. I apply the term 'creativity' broadly ... it’s problem solving. We are all faced with problems and we have to address them and think of something new and that’s where creativity comes in.”

 – Ed Catmull, FastCompany article, "Pixar President Ed Catmull On How To Run A Creative Business"

At the back of the book Catmull has a lot of bullet points around thoughts for managing a creative culture, which at the end of the day isn’t exclusive to ‘creative’ businesses, including:

  • Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.
  • Failure is a necessary consequence of doing something new.
  • The healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.
  • The process of problem-solving often bonds people together and keeps the culture in the present.
  • A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.
  • Imposing limits can encourage a creative response.
  • Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.

What stands out foremost in the book as the underlying factor of Pixar’s success is what they call the “Braintrust”. The Braintrust brings together a bunch of smart, passionate people to review a movie as it goes through its lifecycle. The folks that make up this group naturally include directors, producers, writers, and animators but it could also include individuals outside the typical ‘creative’ areas. They use this Braintrust to create a healthy culture where people feel free to share ideas and to constructively criticize. 

There are a few principles of the Braintrust that are vitally important: The individuals must be sharp and passionate; the team has to put a lot of solutions out in a short amount of time; there has to be absolute candor – this is the premier guiding principle. I think the ‘magic’ comes via another key tenant of the Braintrust – this group has no authority. The group can’t make the director change the movie. It’s their job to get to the essence of what’s wrong (Catmull says all Pixar movies “suck” at some point); it’s the director’s job to figure out how to address the feedback.

OK, so how does this relate to supply chain management? Well, these periodic Braintrust sessions remind me a lot of Consensus Demand Planning and Sales & Operation Planning (S&OP). Consensus Demand Planning incorporates various organizational views and possible biases on what the forecast looks like. Others in the organization are required to collaborate and creatively determine how to best balance supply & demand while optimizing company objectives (margin, inventory, revenue, etc.). 

At the end of the day, the S&OP team may have several suggestions on what to do … but it’s the Executive S&OP (the “movie’s director”) that has the ultimate responsibility for absorbing the options and deciding how best to drive the company forward.  So what if Consensus Demand Planning and S&OP looked and felt more like a group reviewing a movie’s “dailies” using Pixar Braintrust-like principles to collaboratively solve problems? I tend to subscribe to “The Wisdom of Crowds” and believe that if we can leverage tools that give end-to-end visibility to the strong, passionate professionals in our supply chain organizations and break down walls to encourage & support real-time collaboration, we can also unleash Pixar-like creativity (and success). In support of the Braintrust principles, below is what I currently see on the creatively collaborative SCM continuum.


I’d appreciate additional wisdom from the supply chain crowd out there (I’m sure there are other applications, approaches and principles out there that are really creative and bleeding edge). Do you have a formalized ‘Braintrust’ type process and the supporting tools for creative SCM? What are you doing (or seeing) in terms of SCM creativity!?

Additional Resources


Supply chain teacher (Marks)
- October 02, 2014 at 6:57am
hmmmmm great and thanks
Diana Yu
- October 06, 2014 at 10:46am

First of all, thanks for the wonderful article!

I know that some startups are looking at Google Docs as a real-time collaboration medium. Although the features on Google Docs/Drive is less so than the actual programs in Windows (say, Excel, etc.), the ability to see what everyone else is doing at a certain point in time allows us to keep track of who’s doing what and when. It also invites a certain kind of social pressure where an employee is aware of the possibility someone else could keep tabs on them.

However, RapidResponse and Google/Skype/WebEx, etc., is already pushing technology in regards to communication, from what I’ve seen of actual companies. My experience with smaller companies and non-profits still place them at the spreadsheets, email, fax, and occasional conference calls. The people there are similar to those of the Braintrust, but do not yet have the means to fully capitalize on technology.

Diana Yu
- October 07, 2014 at 8:54am
Thank you for the thoughtful response and for sharing your insight. I can definitely see how this trajectory might be different for smaller companies in terms of some of the tools that are used. The beauty of smaller companies is that fewer associates allows for more frequent, intimate collaboration, so some of this might be overkill in their cases anyway. I'm guessing that as more young people who've grown up with technology in their hands enter the workforce and apps designed to connect us continue to evolve, that even more of the 'smaller' companies will capitalize on the technology that's available for collaboration. The apps will lower the barrier to entry and having folk familiar/comfortable with the technology will increase adoption. I can't wait to see how they "meet up" to generate creative supply chain solutions within and across industries.

Thanx again for taking the time to share your insight and experience - greatly appreciated!


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