Problem-solving and Kiwi ingenuity at its best

Problem Solving Skills for People and Businesses

Succeeding isn't easy but some teams make a good fist of it and here’s how and why they go about it.

Team New Zealand certainly added a new chapter to the Kiwi ingenuity book when they won the America's Cup in 2017.

Regardless of the passionate debates and egos that surround the America’s Cup each cycle, there are undoubtedly some great takeaways for companies from Team New Zealand from their current challenge for the America's Cup.

Why? Team New Zealand was never meant to win. 

It's no secret, if you hold the cup, as Oracle did, you get to write the rules. Yes, you decide who the match officials are, they decide how long the race is and when you can and can't race. There are few other so-called “competitions” in sports like it.

As cup holders, you are allowed to make it so incredibly hard and unfair if you want that the competition doesn't even get a so much as a foothold, let alone victory.

Why cite Team New Zealand and its culture as an example for kiwi and global companies to emulate?

They got to 7-1 up to take the cup even with the odds stacked completely against them.


The news media is full of micro details but in macro technical terms, it is simply because of the team’s dynamic stability and innovation in the face of technology change, to use a term coined by Thomas Friedman.

What is dynamic stability for teams and companies?

Dynamic stability is about balanced operations, focused on continuous improvement within shorter and shorter innovation cycles with less and less time to adapt!

As a company, you use technology, empowerment and competently skilled operating crew to get to your goals. It allows you to pivot when you need to, at speed.

How? Every team member understands the goal, what's needed and work with urgency to get there!

Dynamic stability skills are coming to a team near you and companies that succeed in the long term get this quick smart!

For the uninitiated, some of the challenges faced by Team New Zealand and problems solved so far have included: 

  • Competing with billion dollar deep pockets of competitors when it comes to resources and Research & Development.
  • A change of specifications to make competing intentionally difficult.
  • Anti-competitive behaviour.
  • Constantly changing rules of engagement that favour the status quo.
  • A highly technology-driven product where the margins allowed for error is minuscule.
  • Being forced to work within the constraints of geographic distance and multiple operating environments

Given this, even if Team New Zealand was 7-1 down, it would still have been an achievement.

All of the above sound vaguely familiar to food exporters?

Let’s admit it, if you are exporting food globally, it's hard but you don’t have things stacked this unfairly against you.

It’s the equivalent of an overseas market requirement (OMAR) that expects a food company to not just compete with one food product they get to choose but they get to tell you the specifications, how you label your product like theirs and then force you to stack your can - 1 behind theirs on the retail shelf.

Then, against these odds, you still go on to sell the first three cans off the shelf before they shut the store for 5 days to re-group!

Here are some of the many goals that Team New Zealand got to that can provide any company/team insight:

  • Get a strong team, including, a competent board, management, technical specialists and high-performance operating crew.
  • Attract funding at critical junctions.
  • Stay committed to learning from mistakes - keep debriefing, improving & learning.
  • Think outside the box and leverage innovative differentiators.
  • Be well-prepared for varying environmental conditions - then focus and believe in your plan.
  • Keep your head down and bottom up - Execute! (Team New Zealand do this, quite literally with their cyclors).

What are some learnings for companies from this?

  • Empower and train the entire team for skills that exceed just Standard Operating Practice.
  • If you can’t train the entire team then select and train a core group of operators to power your operations at the very least. It won't get you results on a Team New Zealand scale but you will make some progress.
  • Let the team loose with not just problem-solving but with getting to your production and other goals such as maximising Quality Control (QC) 1 type product (with the longest shelf life).
  • Analyse for operating constraints, your team can focus on only so many things at a time.

Is there a simple visual that explains where a company should focus when aiming for continuous improvement?

Market and Technology Accelerated Operating Environment

So you get the theory but still looking for some case studies and companies that walk the talk?

Everyday ambitions Kiwi companies are focused on the long game and constantly innovating.

In no particular order and this list is by no means exhaustive:

  • Westland Milk Products: The company remains the centre of the community on the West Coast that few other can emulate and remains steely focused on upskilling operators from Milk Collection to Canning - through challenging times, year-on-year.

  • Fonterra: The company successfully harnesses technology and the unique challenges posed by their sheer scale while keeping up with the lofty expectations of the market and the New Zealand public.

  • Jack Links: The company continues with protein-based product innovation while simultaneously meeting a wide range of Overseas Market Requirements with a strong food safety focus.

Quietly achieving companies to look out for:

  • BODCO Dairy: The company concentrates on risk management from the CEO downwards and gets social media engagement with the market, telling its story effectively to people whom it sells to.

  • Tank Juice: The company continues to successfully manage its human capital acquisition challenge (common to all companies) while constantly innovating. They now even have a new hot soup range.

  • Mataura Valley Milk: The company continues to navigate the build, pre-commissioning and problem-solving stage of launch while doing this at breakneck speed with a focused team.

Some inspirational small business case studies focused on product innovation and problem-solving:

  • Royaschiabeads: The company successfully focuses on a beverage range aimed at boosting energy while combating fatigue and stress.
  • Mamas brew: The company successfully focuses on an organic symbiotic beverage range that appeals to a heath food demographic.
  • Ascension Kitchen: The company successfully focuses on plant-based whole foods in their most natural state, catering to a wide range of allergen management needs.

What are some inherent strengths New Zealand food businesses can leverage and global companies can look to emulate?

  • Global benchmarking consistently shows high value in "Brand New Zealand". Global consumers are willing to pay a premium for this.

  • New Zealand's cost-effective primary food production provides companies with a great springboard when it comes to the 'value add' game.

  • Innovative thinking comes naturally to teams in Aotearoa.

NZTE as an example does a great job at helping Kiwi businesses problem-solve in this area.

Where do we see opportunities for improvement for Food Company Management?

Technology and Market Acceleration are shortening product innovation cycles and making traditional IP, R&D approaches and a hold-test-release as the primary risk management net, redundant.

Improvement, innovation and risk management is increasingly driven by empowered smart teams of operators at the coal face.

Quality and Food Safety are where your biggest revenue and brand gains are to be had!

Operators will have to recall risk management skills in real time, the result of practised year-on-year training.

It's worth noting that New Zealand food export market is projected to double in the next decade to 35+ billion dollars a year and keep growing.

Given this, there are opportunities for smart food companies to improve with upskilling and training while providing operators with the ability to do this continuously!

Where do we see opportunities for improvement for the Board of Directors at food companies?

Expect food safety culture measurement scores and actions from the executive team. Poor culture is a pre-cursor to operational problems.

Seek out soft qualitative measurement tracking, like the turn-over of key knowledge holders.

Include food safety risk management and competency assessment as part of risk audit committee scope and if you have already done this, verify the findings independently.

Where do we see opportunities for improvement for Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) and Standard Setting Bodies (SSBs)?

Opportunities exist for training and skills that go beyond “mapping” of qualifications to just Standard Operating Practice (SOPs). 

Continuous Improvement

Standard Operating Practice in the diagram is a minimum induction level of skills for operators. It's meant to just consolidate where you are at. This approach holds teams back from going forward at pace with goal slaying empowerment, critical thinking ability and reduces the gains to be had on the Quality Improvement axis.

If Team New Zealand took this 'SOP' approach we would still have hand-powered hydraulics and our wing trimmed by rope!

Commit to delivering measurable improvement (or partner with providers who can) to companies, too many of whom are disillusioned with their previous experiences with "training".

Where do we see opportunities for improvement for Training Companies?

Opportunities exist to equip operators with cognitive skills that require and reward both the ability to manage HACCP and risk management as well as interpersonal skills that effectively complement technology.

Where do we see opportunities for improvement for Operators and Students? 

If you think life is hard now, it's only going to get harder with technology replacing labour.

A lot more will be on you! To paraphrase Thomas Friedman, you better take ownership, seek out smart assistance and be prepared to continuously learn and upskill on-job and if necessary in your OWN time, throughout your career.

No athlete ever got better without practice and focus. There's no app to download for this or remote control to grab… you have to get up and do things yourself!

Case in point: Peter Burling as with any expert... has spent thousands of hours on the water all alone, honing his skills.

Continuous Improvement and Professional Development for People and Businesses

Practice and apply your learning by getting operations better and better, shift-on-shift!

This post is about giving people and companies some succinct insight aimed at improving your odds at success. 

A lot of social media ecosystems and posts are about soapbox style broadcasting based on limited real field tests and experiences, rather than mutual collaboration focused on understanding and learning.

Well done Team New Zealand!

Article Author: Keith Michael, Director, Food Safe Limited

Keith holds a Certificate in Company Direction from the Institute of Directors (IOD), New Zealand with years of experience as a company director where he has assisted companies with Food Safety Compliance, Risk Audit and closing of gaps identified with smart, purpose-built competency training. 

His other roles include:

  • Adjunct Research Fellow: Auckland University of Technology - assisting Dr. Brent Seale with the development and launch of New Zealand's first specialized BSc Food Safety Degree.
  • Member: Business Standards Review Panel at NZQA.
  • Board Level Advisor: Food Safety Compliance & Risk Audit, Institute of Directors (IOD) Trained.
  • Keynote speaker: Food Safety Conference 2018, 2019, 2020

Share this content