The CIO of Chobani has taken some bold steps at the yogurt behemoth, and he's a firm believer that the role of IT is to support the business strategy.
Chobani is the No. 1 Greek yogurt in the United States. Founded in 2007 by Turkish immigrant Hamdi Ulukaya, the company now has more than 2,000 employees. One year ago, Jindra Zitek was promoted to the position of interim-CIO at the company. He had been vice president of sales, marketing, business analytics and employee solutions within IT. As he discusses with CIO Insight contributor, Peter High, as interim CIO, he is responsible for Chobani's global IT strategy, delivery and support—namely technical services including network operations, help desk and cyber-security; applications, starting with the company's ERP and other functional tools, as well as company-wide collaboration and productivity tools.
You do not have a traditional educational background for a CIO, as you studied finance and economics as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics, and you received an MBA from Columbia University. You then worked as a consultant with McKinsey. How did your background in finance and as a consultant help you in your current role and how did you develop your technical skills?
Jindra Zitek: I believe my non-technical background in finance and consulting and project implementation experience from McKinsey actually helps me be an effective IT leader and partner for the business. At McKinsey, I specialized in business transformations, turnarounds and growth strategies. Across a number of industries (automotive, energy, health care, telecommunications), I experienced how technology and applications help businesses and individual functions unlock value—for example through increasing efficiency and consistency of business processes, or delivering insights and functionality that would otherwise not be possible (or with significant manual effort only). Being a business leader first enables me to identify where IT can deliver value and effectively communicate it to my business partners and then align on joint business/IT strategy and funding. My finance and McKinsey background drives me to look for clear benefits in each IT project at Chobani, and once we kick off a new project I ensure that we have clear accountability on both the IT and business side and measurable benefits milestones. As a rule, all of our projects have business sponsors to make sure we work on initiatives that matter to the business.
I am able to focus on the value to the business and prioritization thanks to our very strong IT leadership team who focuses on technical and applications specific knowledge and skills. While I have not worked in IT directly previously, my relationship with IT and hardware goes back to my early teenage years when I started working part time at my dad’s business back in the Czech Republic – reverse logistics and repairs for end-user devices (printers, PCs, cell phones, cameras, etc).
When you first took on the role of CIO, how did you organize yourself in the early days of this period? Were there changes to the IT strategy, to the organization structure, to processes, or to technologies that you implemented?
Zitek: I took on the role of CIO after just 3 months with Chobani, right as we were setting budgets for 2015. I had limited time to influence budget and the strategic plan for the next year. I immediately focused on two priorities:
First, I sat down with each functional and business owner to review their IT project wish lists (whether new applications, enhancements or support) and we jointly prioritized the list of 2015 initiatives. I then combined the list, ensured we prioritized across functions and communicated it as IT plan for 2015. Looking back, we had only 2 additional significant initiatives which were requested by the business later during the course of the year and were not in the plan, and we are on track to complete about 80% of what we originally committed to.
Separately, I sat down with my leadership team and reviewed all of the ongoing projects for resources, budgets and timelines. Given a large number of active and "about to start" projects we intentionally deprioritized or shut some of them down. Looking back (and reviewing the impact of some of these projects that just got completed), we should have been more rigorous in stopping projects even if they were only a few months away from completion where benefits and/or business support were not clear.
I inherited a partially implemented ERP solution (Microsoft Dynamics AX R1) with some modules not implemented or with manual workarounds or Excel-based processes. So far this year we have focused on implementing supply chain and quality enhancements and new functionality. We have also launched our BYOD program and switched to Office 365. Over the next 12 months, the largest projects involve switching on additional ERP functionality and moving away from spreadsheets for additional supply chain, planning and finance processes.
Some of the most significant changes in IT have taken place in-house on the people and process side. We have revised job descriptions, to ensure that we have one person accountable for each project or process, and also started taking goal creation and mid-year goal and performance reviews more seriously. We now have clarity regarding who does what and performance in the organization has increased overall as we have communicated that the bar is raising and we want to reward for true performance. I also had a chance to bring in new talent to bring in new perspectives and expertise.
Last but not least, we have picked a few core internal IT processes where we previously encountered frequent delays and rework. Specifically, Release Management process and support/enhancement ticket process were redesigned and clear accountabilities for each part of the process were assigned, resulting in increase in productivity and better communication and support for the business.
You have focused on tightly aligning IT strategy with the business strategy. What methods have you employed to do so?
Zitek: The core of our IT strategy is to support the business strategy both in terms of growth and efficiency opportunities. IT has a seat on the table in very early discussions – before it is clear whether IT solution or help is needed, or the pain point will be tackled with business process redesign only. For majority of projects, this was a pretty easy change, and even projects or initiatives that seemed to be “internal IT” initiatives can in majority of cases be tied to clear business objectives and benefits. We have also worked on improving the communication between business and IT by creating a new role – Strategic Solutions Manager, acting as a single point of contact between IT and individual functions.
How would you describe the culture of the IT team, and what have you done to change it?
Zitek: We have a great team of experienced professionals in Chobani IT, who come to work every day excited about the mission of the company and the difference they can make. We have worked on making sure that IT and business are closely aligned on prioritization of individual projects – resulting in fewer projects actively being pursued but more accountability for deliverables, timelines and budgets. We have cadence of regular PMO meetings and project deep dives to ensure that we have the right degree of visibility into key projects and are allocating resources appropriately– one of the biggest cultural changes we achieved is that people are not afraid to show their project as RED and ask for extra help or escalation earlier rather than later. Apart from better communication and collaboration with the business, we have also worked on improving communication and collaboration within IT.
What metrics have you used to gauge progress of your team, and its contribution to the company?
Zitek: In terms of formal metrics, we track performance on enhancement and break-fix tickets for ongoing support and on budget and on time performance of new initiatives, including payback. We have a scorecard across all medium and large initiatives where we mark progress against budget, timelines, resources and benefits. Then we also measure traditional IT metrics when it comes to performance of our network, uptime for applications, etc. Then there are more qualitative metrics—the strength of the relationship between IT and business, which has strengthened significantly over the last 12 months.
What major initiatives are part of your current strategic plan?
Zitek: My focus is on building infrastructure for next stage of business growth, both geographically and also expanding the category. First we have worked on plugging some immediate gaps in processes and configurations and right now we are focusing on bringing additional functionality to business, driving both top line as well as helping to achieve savings in operations. Simultaneously, we are working on increasing efficiency and reliability of internal IT processes, cloud strategy, moving to Office 365 and other tools to enhance employee collaboration.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.
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