Report from the inaugural Fresh Thinking Labs Open Event at Saint-Gobain, Bristol from Naomi Imms's blog

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Report from the inaugural Fresh Thinking Labs Open Event at Saint-Gobain, Bristol

Participants from a diverse group of 12 Basque, Belgian and UK organisations (Bristan, Convestro, CSV Diversiteit, Clarcor, Ederfil Becker, E.ON, GE Mining, Lindum, Nottingham City Council, Trinity Laban, Rittal CSM) were welcomed to Saint-Gobain’s Bristol FabLab over two days in October, 2016 for the launch Fresh Thinking Labs Open Event.

Saint-Gobain was founded in 1665 and employs 200,000 people worldwide. The Bristol ‘Performance Plastics’ plant, which manufactures bearings for the automotive industry and other sectors, has created a powerful approach to employee-driven innovation and self-managed teams – with many striking achievements and challenges to share.

The Open Event

After an icebreaker lunch, Saint-Gobain’s Business Manager Tom Francis provided participants with ‘the big picture’ including a whistle-stop tour of the past five years from the management team’s perspective. Much of the journey, including experiments with dedicated teams for innovation, customer journeying, 'value stream mapping', cross-functional working, and agile methodologies, has been about moving from a pyramidal hierarchy to a more circular organisation where decision making power is given to those with the most amount of knowledge in that field.

Saint-Gobain's global network of FabLabs are dedicated workshop spaces equipped with high-tech machinery including 3d printers, allowing employees from any division to “put their ideas into form”; and for the Bristol plant exemplifies just one way in which employees are being encouraged to move move away from the hierarchical psychology of obeying and seeking permission, to using initiative, creativity and passion, and being empowered to make decisions.

Setting the wider context, Fresh Thinking Labs’ Peter Totterdill explored working practices that enable employees at every level to use and develop their full range of knowledge, experience and creativity in day-to-day work, while Professor John Bessant (University of Exeter) explained how the ‘flat, networked’ style of 21st century innovation is not only becoming increasingly important but also increasingly possible thanks to the internet and online platforms like Fresh Thinking Labs.

The visitors joined three internal teams in reflecting on Saint-Gobain's achievements and challenges – or, as Gabriella Eberhardt of GE Mining put it, things to ‘continue or consider’. After exploring challenges from the Saint-Gobain perspective, the three groups pooled their ‘big questions’ for exploration during Open Forums on the following day.

By lunchtime on Day 2 participants had examined ways of overcoming internal power struggles, engaging the whole workforce in innovation and improvement, and managing career progression in a flatter structure, each taking away actionable insights both from Saint-Gobain and from the other visiting companies. A full report of outcomes is available to participants.

Participant feedback from the Saint-Gobain Open Event

"What we’ve seen today is that the Fresh Thinking Labs concept has helped us get a pretty good picture of what we’re actually trying to do.  Sometimes we try to tackle stuff without knowing exactly what the problem is.  So what I’ve found today is that the questioning from all the different organisations has given some clarity to our thinking.  This makes us really think about what we are doing, what we are trying to achieve."

Tom Francis, Saint Gobain

"Today has been absolutely brilliant.  Fresh Thinking Labs is about interaction and the whole concept of bringing businesses together to share their experiences in this way is ground-breaking and invaluable."

Herman Kok, Lindum Group

"I think the Fresh Thinking Labs concept is incredibly important. Coming together with other companies helps you recognise that we have similar problems and challenges.  In some case other companies have actually tackled a problem you’ve got, and come up with a solution that may have taken you months or even years to resolve. Getting together and sharing ideas has real value, real benefits."

Malcolm Bond, Rittal CSM

“The two days were great in bringing different people from different backgrounds and different industries together. I’m a great believer in learning from each other, and the most powerful thing is when you have a problem statement, which is not even from your context – but your brain starts working, and you have some inspiration which you can take in analogy to think ‘how can I apply this to the issues, questions or challenges in our own organisation?’ It is not only ‘fresh thinking’ but refreshing!”


Gabriella Eberhardt, GE Transportation – Mining


"Fresh Thinking Labs provides an amazing opportunity for individuals to get together, share what they’re doing and have the chance to think outside of work. Taking that step back, reflecting and being able to bounce ideas off others is invaluable.  There’s lots of things I’ve already taken away after just one session."

Mary Lester, Nottingham City Council

Want to be part of our next Open Event? Join Fresh Thinking Labs to access the 2017 Open Event Programme.