When Lanette Shaffer Werner gets asked about her job, it takes a little explaining before the light bulb goes on.
"Many people say, 'I didn't realize jobs like that existed,'" she said.
Many people only focus on the "what" when it comes to food. At General Mills, Shaffer Werner is queen of the "how."
The Golden Valley-based company's new chief innovation, technology and quality (ITQ) officer leads the food scientists and process engineers that turn ingredients into brands.
"There's not a lot of understanding around how that box of Cheerios gets onto a shelf," she said. "We come up with those ideas and work with partners to bring those ideas to reality."
Shaffer Werner, 53, started at the company in 1995 as an R+D intern with the Häagen-Dazs team. She took over as head of ITQ this summer when her predecessor, Jodi Benson, retired.
Out of context, one could mistake Shaffer Werner as a leader for a tech firm — fitting, as her job revolves around making General Mills a more digitally nimble company that counts AI as a member of the team.
"We are constantly iterating and in learning loops," she says — similar to the Silicon Valley adage of "move fast and break things."
It always comes back to the food, though, and responding to consumer wants and needs.
Shaffer Werner talked with the Star Tribune recently about her role. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: So what does ITQ encompass at General Mills — what do you do, and what don't you do?
A: The role we play in ITQ is driving innovation, technical excellence, and making sure we engender the trust consumers have come to expect from us.
This is where we think about our strategy overall: We're really working to reinvent ourselves for tomorrow. How do we design solutions for what consumers need today and in the future?
Innovation is also about delivering remarkable experiences to consumers. People don't just buy our stuff, they buy our brands.
Q: On innovation, how are ideas supported and tested, and how can those processes improve?
A: We know winning innovation depends on creating these remarkable experiences. We want to make sure we're worth every penny.
As for the how, the day in the life is pretty fun. When we are innovating, we start with a few principles. We fall in love with the problems, not the solutions. How do we breathe consumers' air and walk in their shoes and consider things like joy, wellness, convenience and delivering value?
Then we experiment a ton. We believe the fastest learners win.
Innovation isn't just new products; we talk about innovating everywhere. Doing something differently that creates value. What channel, what's the service, what's the business model.
We're seeing those transformations across many industries. Think about fast fashion and the disruption that brought about.
Q: How are the company's R+D efforts aligning with what's happening in kitchens in terms of diet and ingredient trends?
A: Convenience is everything. The air fryer has transformed kitchens, and meal solutions have become ever so important. Take Pillsbury dough, add meat and cheese and it becomes dinner for the family.
Consumers are always looking for more value. And then there's weight loss and weight management. High protein, high fiber, low carbs, low sugar are at the forefront, and we are developing technology to go after those solutions.
Q: Let's talk about the 'T' in ITQ, technology.
A: It really comes back to that idea of solving problems. We are leveraging technology to unlock ingredients solutions.
We've developed technology focused on how we get more power from flour. We're using processing to transform the macros on flour, to be higher in fiber and lower in calories. Take the Halo Top baking mixes for brownies and cookies, for instance.
Then we are seeing the digital transformation in our business. In order to better understand the consumer, we are digital-first. We go to consumers to show them what's possible before we even prototype one item. It helps us get smarter before we get to market.
Q: How about artificial intelligence?
A: Generative AI is another member of our innovation team, and we're leveraging that to accelerate our learning. We can do that at a much faster pace than we ever could before.
As it relates to technology development, we're also using machine learning to process datasets that for humans are really hard to do.
Q: The Q in ITQ is about food safety, right? Are there novel approaches or any new science in this area that General Mills is leading with?
A: I think the safety of all food products is often assumed, especially in the U.S.
We talk about quality as designed, quality as manufactured and and quality as consumed. We make sure we translate that to a safe experience for our consumers.
This is not trade secret stuff. We want to spread food safety processes with our peers and learn from them.
We've been on a journey on flour safety for quite a while, because we like to lick the batter off spoons. It's a common consumer behavior, especially with cookie dough.
We've partnered with universities, our milling partners and an international flour lab on a Pillsbury cookie dough. There's a button that calls out "safe to eat raw" that uses pasteurized egg and heat-treated flour.
Another place we are innovating is using digital tools to deliver more consistent quality. We can learn about moisture levels and optimal performance and weight control.