Preparing the Soil
Managers of a California manufacturing plant with several hundred employees, at corporate’s prompting, agreed to build a more open workplace. Several meetings with the plant leadership group produced a vision and a plan.
Supervisors were trained to lead open problem-solving meetings with employees. Through a series of discussions with supervisors, managers committed to initially support just two employee problem-solving groups: manufacturing and sanitation and safety. Each group began by identifying problems interfering with their tasks.
1. Production Team
Breakdowns gave the production line group the most trouble. These were physically and psychologically draining for the workers. With guidance, the small group systematically collected data on the frequency, type and cause of breakdowns. The process of identifying and analyzing problems soon led to problem-solving. As their analysis looked deeper at root causes, the group involved other shifts and other departments in the analysis; first to collect and analyze data, but later to list and map broad system-related issues connected to the breakdowns.
It was not easy for the managers to remain open as the employees took responsibility for analyzing and addressing inter-departmental and, later on, external supplier issues. Many managers felt that this was their exclusive territory. (“If I don’t own that who am I?”) But with a little help from the plant manager and Meridian Group, they restrained themselves from interfering and soon adopted a strongly supportive role.
2. Sanitation and Safety Team
Meanwhile, the small group of sanitation and safety employees had begun analyzing their own work-related problems. Their biggest frustrations were the large mounds of product waste they had to constantly clean up. As a long-range goal, they wanted to keep the plant cleaner by stopping the mess at its source. As with the production group, it wasn’t long before they involved other parts of the plant in mapping broad system-wide issues that led to product waste.
Uncovering Systemic Problems
From a broad perspective all problems are related. So the two groups quickly found themselves working closely together on system-wide issues, a process that eventually involved, to some degree, almost everybody in the plant. It was clear that a new wind was blowing.
Trust in Management
Employees knew that upper management now supported employees in solving their frustrations at work, even if this sometimes involved changing comfortable and long-standing (but not necessarily constructive) relationships with supervisors, managers and other departments.
Not only did productivity increase and product loss decrease, but morale rose to the point that people were openly excited about coming to work. People discussed at home what was going on at work — something few had done in the past.
Other Leadership Changes
It wasn’t just employees who experienced change. I was pleased to hear the assistant plant manager talking with a group of new supervisors say, “After 28 years with the company, I’m looking forward to bringing you along so that you don’t have to unlearn what I have unlearned about leadership in the last year.” With employees taking more responsibility for issues in their work area the plant manager told a visitor, “I have more control of what goes on here now when I’m away from the plant than I had before when I was on-site.”
The Key: Senior Management’s Open-mindedness
It was upper management’s new openness to employees’ concerns that set the stage for these innovative changes. Management didn’t give employees these problems or abstract goals such as “increase productivity” or “improve customer service.” Managers allowed employees to identify real concerns and solve these through an open evolutionary* dialogue with each other and with management. Because employees identified the problems, they were highly motivated to solve them and to make their solutions stick.
The specific problems or their solutions were not set by upper management. While the process began with people’s workplace frustrations it soon led to addressing broad, system-wide interdepartmental and supplier issues that had been unapproachable for many years. At this plant, in 18 months, productivity doubled. Small evolutionary steps had led to big changes.
* Evolutionary Problem Solving?
Evolutionary change means changes that happen as a response to the environment. Here we use “evolution” to mean the step-at-a-time changes where the next step depends on what happened at the last step, i.e. how the situation responded to the previous action and what you do as a result of that new information. This contrasts with planned change, where the end goal is set and actions all geared to achieve it. To illustrate one difference: in planned change obstacles are identified and overcome with effort. In evolutionary change there are no obstacles because the path forward is always the easiest next step — whatever the situation (environment) suggests.
cc 334 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.