How Kimberly-Clark brought in outsiders for further innovation

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt of an interview with Tom Falk, chairman and CEO of Kimberly-Clark with MIT Sloan Management Review’s David Kiron.

David Kiron: Over the past 10 years, what have been the big inflection points in your sustainability agenda?

TF: The place to start is really in the mid-‘90s, when I first got involved in sustainability. That coincided with the Scott merger, which is when we became a much bigger tissue company.

At that point we set a series of five-year goals. We wanted to look out far enough, have some stretch objectives, set goals and then measure them in each of our facilities around the world every quarter.

About 10 years ago, I gave a speech to one of our healthcare customers, who had asked me to come in and talk about sustainability. We very quickly learned that they had no idea what I was talking about. They thought I was coming to talk about the sustainability of a change initiative, and I actually talked about sustainability in the broad sense that we would know it today.

About five years ago, I was at one of our global consumer forums for a bunch of CPG (consumer packaged goods) manufacturers. None of the food guys knew what sustainability meant. All of us non-food guys knew what it was about, but I was talking to a guy who made baked beans for a living who had no clue what sustainability even was.

We thought we were doing a great job. We formed an outside sustainability advisory board. But they helped us recognize that we’ve eaten our own cooking for a long time, that we really didn’t have a clear view about what the rest of the world was doing and that we should be raising our gaze to a more aggressive set of goals.

I meet with the board and my leadership team formally once a year to get feedback on where we should push harder, and maybe where we think we’re doing great, but we’re not quite best in class yet. There’s been some good, open dialogue with people who think very differently from us.

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