Tag Archives: employees

The Collaborative Improvement Environment

The responsibility of every employee, from the front-line to the executive suite, is business performance improvement. But barriers exist to realizing positive bottom-line impact, operational efficiency, organizational effectiveness, and a continual flow of improvements built on the knowledge of a firm’s employees.

According to a McKinsey & Company study, amazingly 70% to 75% of companies do not have an improvement process defined and implemented on a broad basis. Senior executives seeking performance improvement face formidable tasks such as:

  • Rallying and enabling all employees to seek improvements everyday
  • Defining and implementing a truly sustainable improvement process, sustainable for 10 years or more
  • Shifting an organization’s culture to one of collaboration and improvement
  • Leading the 4 generations which comprise the typical workforce within an enterprise, each with its own preferred style of communication and comfort with current technologies
  • Leveraging constant improvements to gain defensible competitive advantage for a firm.

Improvement Trends

Over the past several decades, stretching back to the mid-20th century, several trends exist in how businesses improve.

  • Many improvement methods have been attempted through the years with varying results
  • Each improvement method has a finite lifecycle of impact to an organization’s performance gains (see my previous blog on “Patterns of Improvement”
  • Sustainable, continuous improvement has been a promise that is seldom realized
  • True sustainability has been hampered by numerous root causes.

Root Causes of Decaying Impact

Root causes of impact decay I have observed over the years include:

  • Improvement is a special program within a firm and is not treated as part of employees’ day-to-day jobs
  • No structural incentives exist to motivate improvement behaviors
  • Outside experts, such as academics, gurus, and consultants, drive improvement programs creating the risk of high levels of organizational resistance
  • At most, only 1% to 2% of an organization’s workforce is asked by senior leadership to participate in improvement efforts, e.g. 300 to 600 people in a 30,000 person company
  • Distribution of deep improvement know-how and tools is limited to a central team or a select few specialized resources, e.g., Six Sigma Black Belts, the Quality Department, or the Office of Reengineering
  • Organizations run out of energy and endurance beyond a 3 to 5 year period
  • Special improvement programs lose focused, visible leadership from senior executives after 12 to 18 months or leadership of the firm changes and along with that comes a new executive agenda
  • New improvement methods hit the market every 4 to 6 years creating systemic discontinuities caused by implementation ramp-up times of 6 months to 2 years.

The Collaborative Improvement Opportunity

To manage through the long trough of the global recession and the protracted recovery, senior executives must improve how their business improves. Root causes of the decaying impact of improvement processes must be attacked through a focused effort to create a high performance collaboration environment.

I believe a window of opportunity exists for an enterprise to leap forward beyond its competitors by requiring and enabling employees to adopt improvement behaviors executed on a routine basis. Also, a window of opportunity exists for an enterprise’s senior leadership team to create a lasting improvement legacy for the organization.

What’s Next?

A thriving enterprise requires continual performance improvement in order to thrive. Truly sustainable improvement methods have been elusive over the past several decades. The impact of improvement programs decays as a result of a myriad of root causes, which must be addressed with a hybrid of traditional and modern techniques. Senior executives must role model improvement behaviors to drive a cultural shift in their organizations towards collaboration and the search for business improvement everyday and in every way.

An Improvement Story: When “RIF” Does Not Mean “Reduction in Force”

DuPont NylonOur small, twin-engine turbo-prop had flown over Lookout Mountain just prior to descending into the Tennessee River Valley. As we landed at Chattanooga Municipal Airport, it rained a summer rain which tries but fails to provide relief to the heat and humidity of the Deep South. I collected my luggage, descended the 20 steps onto the tarmac, and thought about this new assignment.

In the early 1990s, we were asked by Ed Woolard, then CEO of DuPont de Nemours, to undertake a massive improvement program aimed at transforming the 190-year old chemical giant into a progressive, modern enterprise as measured by (1) nimbleness in the competitive marketplace, (2) responsiveness to customer needs, (3) agility in manufacturing operations, (4) advancement of its people, (5) profitable, global growth, and (6) attractive financial returns to shareholders.

The business unit of this assignment was the DuPont Nylon division. A DuPont scientist had invented nylon in 1935. Initial products such as nylon-bristled toothbrushes and nylon stockings drove the first wave of growth for the business. The Second World War drove the next wave with high demand for nylon to be used in vehicle tires, flak jackets, and parachutes. The third wave of growth emerged post-WWII with the booming U.S. population and domestic economy.

This third wave of growth spurred DuPont executives to decide to build a chemical plant in Chattanooga and begin nylon manufacturing operations in July of 1948. Exactly 44 years later, our team stepped onto the 500-acre site to launch the transformation of the facility. The still air sweltered and the smell of burnt plastic stung our nostrils.

The reception was mixed. Some people truly welcomed outside help, others accepted us as it was the politically correct thing to do, and a fairly large contingent viewed us as doing “the devil’s work”. Those that truly welcomed outside help formed the nucleus of what was to become an ever-growing portion of the workforce focused on making improvements around the plant.

As we uncovered opportunities for improvement, we discovered there was an enormous amount of pent up demand among the employees for positively changing the business. The employees, however, needed ways to channel their energy to make change happen. They lacked the necessary tools to start initiatives and then, see their ideas through implementation. Our main thrust in the early stages of the transformation was to provide the tools and the training required to ultimately realize results.

At the time, improvement tools included team building, problem solving, statistical analyses, root-cause diagrams, work elimination, and many other traditional methods. But we were surprised to learn not all employees had one critical and fundamental tool. And that fundamental tool was the ability to read and write!

Approximately 10% of the 2,000 employees were functionally illiterate. Each person functioned in his job, understood his responsibilities, and knew how to operate his machine as this knowledge was passed to him on the job “by the last guy”. Even more startling was that nearly 30% of those who volunteered to participate early in the transformation program fell into the functionally illiterate group. This would not work for the transformation.

We quickly teamed with plant management to launch an adult literacy program to improve the reading and writing skills of those employees in need. This served not only as a critical step towards engaging employees in the transformation effort, but also as an opportunity to fill a gap in people’s life skills. The benefits included increasing management’s ability to engage a higher portion of the workforce in the transformation program, an enhanced stature for DuPont in the community, and the new readers were enabled to further grow and develop individually.

As a result of the transformation efforts, the Chattanooga facility realized significant improvements. Machine uptime increased total effective capacity as a result of improved preventive maintenance, accelerated product changeovers, and synchronized material moves. Fixed costs decreased from interventions targeted at eliminating unnecessary spending. Manufacturing material costs stepped down through reductions in scrap, rework, and other sources of waste. Cash flow from operations increased enough to mostly self-fund a $250 million plant renovation project completed in 1997.

RIF does not mean “reduction in force”. RIF means “reading is fundamental”.

Are you experiencing pent up demand and energy among your employees to make improvements to your business? Are you leading major change in your enterprise today as Ed Woolard was at DuPont in the 1990s?

Do your people have the fundamental and necessary improvement tools given the global nature and complexity of the today’s business environment? What modern improvement methods are you implementing which give your organization a sustainable competitive advantage? What are your competitors implementing?