Volcano. Or how one company blew up corporate complexity, one pain point at a time.
In the era of complex processes, information overload, and in the wake of decades of acquisitions, Sanofi might have found the key to simplicity.
In an increasingly complex world where every ping and notification vies for our attention, “simplicity” is as enticing as it is elusive. And yet, it’s also necessary for focusing on what matters most. For large global organizations like Sanofi, the opportunity cost of unnecessary complexity is steep. In the past 50 years, we’ve undertaken around 300 acquisitions. While they’ve helped us transform the practice of medicine, they’ve also introduced layers of unnecessary complexity that was slowing us down. So the question was: When you want to simplify the way 90,000 people do things, where do you begin? For us here at Sanofi, the answer was a refreshing philosophy that diverges from other corporate overhauls: start with our people and small things that are blocking their way.
Mindset and mechanics
While many corporations champion grand plans, we realized that true transformations require concrete actions that drive a shift in thinking at every level.
From the beginning, we’ve seen simplification as a shared mission. The responsibility of each and every employee. When our people encounter a needless complexity, I encourage them to ask: Why? Why can’t we change this? It’s a culture-wide transformation that often relies quite simply, on a willingness to change.
Armed with this “mindset and mechanics” framework, we embarked on our most ambitious—and successful—simplification transformation. Internally known as “Volcano”, the 24-month project sought to ignite a culture shift through tangible operational improvements.
A fresh approach to simplification
The work began in 2021 with a group-wide "Your Voice" engagement survey, and five core workstreams were born out of the findings. We quickly launched activations like an idea box to gather recurring-yet-solvable blockages, a series of virtual and in-person roadshows in all key countries and businesses, and the “Volcano Awards,” a company-wide celebration of teams’ successful simplification efforts—all highlighting our commitment to a bottom-up ethos. Add to this a fleet of dedicated internal ambassadors who implemented initiatives across the organization, the team of “wallbreakers” empowered by the CEO to prioritize execution over perfect alignment, and project managers dedicated to seeing efforts through—and you have a recipe for grassroots transformation.
Reflecting on this shift, Sergei Zaiats, Sanofi’s Global Head of Transformation who led the project, recalls, "The turning point came around the 10-month mark—Volcano transitioned from just another corporate initiative to an organizational movement. People started to feel the difference in their day-to-day work lives. Initiatives that are having an impact in Brazil are being now shared and implemented in the UK and Australia. The key is not to reinvent the wheel, but to leverage a catalogue of more than completed 700 initiatives, that have proven their impact on the organization over the past 2 years. ”
By prioritizing action-oriented solutions, Sanofians began to see simplification at every turn. And they were given the tools to implement improvements swiftly. Preemptive controls became post-factum checks, empowering the highly capable workforce to make decisions independently. This relinquishing of control, as challenging as it was, proved pivotal. " Volcano is helping people to turn everyday’s irritations into true actions. People’s attitudes changed from the formal ''They should change it' to very close and visible goals - 'I can change it myself''. This first step brings new energy to make more for further success'', shared Irina Lanina, Quality Head, Autonomous Production Unit Pharma Insulin Campus Frankfurt.
Today, we’re proud to celebrate numerous wins—both company-wide process overhauls and smaller, employee-driven initiatives. Their original goal of 24 simplifications in 24 months was more than surpassed, with numbers reaching 80 company-wide core initiatives and an astounding 700 decentralized completed projects across the organization. And today, life at Sanofi is decidedly simpler with people feeling more empowered. Vacation requests are automatically approved, and Sanofians can spend up to €1K in purchasing without authorization. In Mexico, Russia, and Australia, they’ve opted to optimize time management by cutting down meetings, scheduling them only on specific days of the week, and implementing meeting-free Fridays. And in Hungary, they’re reducing paper usage —and workload— by digitizing all annual commercial agreements with hospitals and pharmacies.
Yet, it's not the numbers that truly capture the success of Volcano — it's the paradigm shift within the company. "We could have made this a lengthy project, but we intentionally limited it to two years," Sergei Zaiats shares. “The goal wasn't a temporary change driven by a central team but a cultural metamorphosis on the individual level. For me, our greatest success is that simplification is now a mindset and a movement, not a mandate.” And feedback from the field has confirmed this.
So, what lies ahead? We’re scaling successful initiatives in new geographies, turning singular success stories into systemic transformations. With hundreds of initiatives already implemented in various regions, the potential for a ripple effect is vast.
The centralized Volcano initiative is set to wind down in the first half of 2024, but it has officially added simplification to our DNA. When it comes to simplification on a global scale, the winning recipe has proven to be a blend of listening to our people first, building a dedicated and empowered team, being ruthless on execution and deliver using improved experience as a KPI, and engaging at every level to create a proper movement.
The project’s success is a testament to the power of listening, empowering, and delivering —a beacon for enterprises navigating unnecessary corporate complexity worldwide.