In our organization a good portion of customer orders are customized. These customizations require people to think and engineer a solution to what they think the customer desires. The customer request is on paper (actually it is digital), but usually consists of a description of the changes requested. Historically, these requests were prioritized and "assigned" to individuals based on:
- The complexity of the work and the team member's capabilities
- The due date of the order
- The relative value of the customer
- How much work was currently assigned to a team member
In other words, work was handed out - often just dropped or piled on a desk - from above with expectations to complete the work in the time allotted. The only outcome was to meet expectations or fail. Failure was met with public retribution. Working at an accelerated pace merely replaced the pile of work with a larger pile. As a result, the incentive to exceed was driven out of the culture. The goal was to get through the work assigned and not get yelled at.
A major change we undertook was to convert the push (actually the dump) system where work was assigned to a pull system where team members could choose the quantity and complexity of the work they chose to undertake. This was not a quick decision. We built a coalition of team members and leaders who believed in the solution before pulling the trigger.
Let us say the transition was less than smooth. Work began to pile up and the "backlog" increased 400%. By any measure, things were not going well and there were calls to revert to the "old way" of doing things, but the core people who really believed this was a better solution hung in there and worked diligently to discover where the problems were. As it turns out, our problem was in properly arranging the work to be queued in a manner similar to that done by the previous overlord (for dramatic effect). Once work was queued properly and team members were working on the right priority work at the right time, things started falling into place. The team had to fight through a huge backlog. We were embarrassed to say customer satisfaction was negatively impacted for about four months while we transitioned to the new system and fought to catch up.
But now for the good news. First, the group is significantly more productive than in the past. We now have better metrics and team members can get their own statistics. Second, we are a team. If a team member chooses to take on a challenging job that stretches their capabilities they know they can spin their chair around and ask a partner for help (oh yeah, we blew up the cubicle farm and let people see and talk to each other along the way).
Finally, it has been a wild ride to see how the queuing tool has developed. Because work - orders - that flow through the company was now visible, staff from other departments could now see what was happening in the fulfillment process. More features have been added to the tool so now you can see basically all aspects of the order from a single dashboard. It has been a resounding success of not just technology, but a fundamental change driven by the concept that the people doing the work are the experts and can be trusted with the gas pedal of the company.
In hindsight it looked like an obvious decision.
The New York Blower Company
La Porte, IN
Manufacturer of industrial ventilation equipment
125 years old
The industry consists mostly of privately held companies.
We had survived the crash of 2008 but the impact on staffing was devistating. We were forced to find ways to increase productivity and desperate for ways to have team members take control of their own work.
The relationship between team members (previously addressed as employees) and management changed in that instead of being told what to do, they now manage their own work. The job of management is to monitor metrics, coach, relieve bottlenecks and provide resources.
For our organization, this was a significant change.
The changeover was relatively quick. We implemented the new system within a week. Picking up the pieces and repairing the damage, however, took around four months.
When the system did not work perfectly out of the box, there were call to turn back and work according to the old ways - primarily by staff from other departments. To be honest, these members from other departments were being negatively impacted by the degarding performance of our team. But the team held to our convictions and fought through the difficulties.
Second, we created a tool that made work, as it moved through the company, visible to the entire organization. Previously, work was handed out in folders and placed on people's desks. These folders became the workflow and as the folders moved to people's desks the work became invisible until it was completed and returned to the manage who makred the work complete in the computer. Today, there are no folders. The electronic queue drives all the work that is "pulled" through by team members.
And finally, when work was handed out there was no reason to collaborate, so there was no reason to move from your desk. We blew up the cubicle farm (on a weekend) and replaced it with a grouping of four team members. New team members were streategically placed with veterans so coaching can occur. The noise level went up a bit so we added some music to generate some white noise. Productivity is up, morale is WAY UP, and people who have a very challenging and monotonous job are happy - or at least congenial.
Most of these changes were done with little authorization. We had connections in IT to provide the software solution and we changed the furniture when people who could stop us were not around. And after we had the change in place and working - for the most part - the momentum of the solution was strong enough that turning around would cause enough pain to alleviate a fight on the issue. We implemented the change laterally.
Because only mistakes were tracked prior to the changeover we have little data prior to the change. Also, because we suffered through a crash and recovery it is difficult to compare metrics across the change. Our internal estimate is we have about a 15% increase in throughput based on revenue per team member.
Other benefits of collaboration and visibility were discussed previously.
Lessons could include:
- Trust the team members to make the right choice, given adequate information!
- Do not be afraid to show the performance and work of a group as it is happening. The information is more valuable than the potential criticism or backseat driving.
The next step is to encourage the team to innovate. This change was material and beneficial, but the concept was initiated my management - a single leader. Additions to the tool were suggested by members throughout the organization, which was fantastic. However, remnants of the previous culture of being told what to do still remain and must be...eliminated. We will have arrived when the next innovation is initiated from the team members.
The IT staff including Ryan Morehouse and Laura Saenz were heavy lifters in building the technology. Jerry Laughlin was THE leader that weathered the storm of criticism and stuck to the belief that was a better solution.