Innovation is necessary for a business to thrive. A company composed of innovators is destined to become extraordinarily successful in today’s economic climate.

Last month I shared my thoughts on the fact that there is no “easy button” to create a culture of change in your company. I reminded all of us of the validity of John F. Kennedy’s words to the effect that change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

This month I want to go deeper into why many wood products companies (both large and small) never seem to be able to get their employees to share the core value within the Kennedy statement and how to correct that.

What Makes a “Bell Cow”

Some of you are, and will remain, leaders in your segment of our industry. You are the bell cows that others aspire to follow. You are out in front ringing the bell so to speak, showing the way to success for others. If you have such a company, one of the main reasons is that you have developed a culture of change and this culture has fostered a number of employees that are innovators, who have been inspired and who are motivating others to adopt this culture. I touched on this last month as a necessary evolution.

What is an innovator? We sometimes think that an innovator is an inventor of something heretofore unknown. It is interesting to discover that Webster defines an innovator as a “maker of changes or introducer of new methods, etc.” How would you like to be able to describe your workforce that way? A business staffed with innovators is destined to become an extraordinarily successful company.

The sad truth is that many owners and managers say that their plant or shop is full of people who are just working for a paycheck and really don’t give a hoot about the company or its future. This is either a misconceived perception or it is true. In either case, it is important to make a change in this culture and it must start with you and your attitude toward your employees. You must acknowledge their enormous value to your organization and its success, and you must believe that with the correct leadership their attitudes can be turned around 180 degrees.

What’s Wrong

Many of our employees have grown up in an environment where they felt they were of marginal value to society, at best. They did not get the motivational training at home or in school that they needed to dream of greatness. It may have been the negative influence of the school system, family, friends, or prior jobs that caused them to evolve into an employee that just goes through the motions at your plant or shop, day after day. The real issue is that along the way, they did not receive the positive reinforcement that you and I had which helped us to understand our potential in this country and to strive to make the most of it.

There is no telling how many of your employees went to school and returned home in the afternoon to assume the role of couch potato in front of the TV instead of engaging in some creative activity. Maybe their parents were struggling to make ends meet and maybe they were in a horrible environment since childhood — but if that is true, there is nothing you or I can do to change the past.

If you have employees that are basically showing up to work with no enthusiasm and maybe with no regularity, it is up to you to do something about it — and I don’t mean fire them.

The Fix

To give our schools credit, there are some interesting extracurricular programs that use effective principles, that I think we should use as an inspiration throughout our wood products industries and apply within our individual companies. I want you to think outside the box as you read the short description below of one of these programs and see if you can think of a way you could utilize its principles within your company.

This program is called Odyssey of the Mind, which was started in 1978 by Dr. C. Samuel Micklus, a professor at Rowan University in New Jersey. It has evolved into an international educational program that provides the opportunity for creative problem-solving for students divided into four divisions, spanning kindergarten through college. These students apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices, including vehicles, to presenting their own interpretations of various literary classics. They bring their solutions to local, state and national competitions. This summer the finals are being held at the University of Maryland.

In the Odyssey of the Mind program, students work in teams of up to seven kids, where they learn cooperation and respect for the ideas of others. They evaluate options and make decisions on their own, gaining greater self-confidence and increased self-esteem along the way. They work with a budget, reported to be about $150, and thus learn the value of, and how to manage, their money. Sometimes this process is more important than the end results. The neat thing is that the kids are rewarded more for how they apply their knowledge, skills, and talents, and not for coming up with the best answer to the problem. In fact, in OotM problems, there is no one right answer — just as there is no one single way to solve a problem in your plant.

Teams are scored for their long-term problem solution, how well they solve a “spontaneous” problem on the spot, and on “style,” or the presentation and elaboration of their long-term problem solution. Children that enter this program invariably get caught up in it and continue to stay involved year after year. Wouldn’t you like to have a workforce made up of OotM graduates?

Creating Innovators

While it is not possible to staff your company exclusively with employees that have been through this program, you can create your own army of innovators that can propel your company down the road of continuous improvement and lean manufacturing by using the OotM program as a model within your company. Recognize that your employees want to feel important and that they want to make a difference in their world at home, work and play. Give them the opportunity to achieve that at work and it will spread to other areas of their lives.

After doing this for a while, you will see the culture in your plant or shop change. Rather than coming to work to face boredom and endure the day, your employees will be transformed into enthusiastic innovators eager to accomplish your company’s goals and find better ways to do it in the process. The key will be to begin slow and focused and chose one issue at a time. You want to listen to what is going on out in the plant and identify the critical issues that need solving. Start with the simpler ones and define the problem, so they clearly understand the issue that they say needs to be resolved.

Identify someone to monitor and facilitate the problem-solving process, form a team and let them come up with a solution. Be patient and let the teams go at their own pace, as long as progress is being made. They need to learn that you support and trust them and are looking for them to decide how to tackle the issue. After you have some positive experiences with the smaller issues, those that affect a large number of workers in several departments can be tackled by more than one team a year or so down the road.

It will be important to remember where your employees are when you start this process. They may have a long way to go before they, and their co-workers, become comfortable with this new role you are offering them. Remember, there is no easy button for them either. They may be suspicious and think this is just another program to take advantage of them. You, the coordinator, and your key managers must spend enough time in the plant or shop to hear and see their reactions, as well as to identify the issues that are critical to the employees — those things that are complicating or disrupting their jobs and their effectiveness. These are usually the ones you want to target.

We have left training and education to others for too long. It is time for us to give our employees a graduate course in self-esteem and self-worth that includes our recognizing and rewarding them for their innovative problem solving.

Maybe you can become a “Bell Cow” and can start ringing your bell and sending some examples of your results to this publication. Perhaps show management at IWF should consider a judged exhibit at the 2010 woodworking show that would mimic the Odyssey of the Mind program.

Hmmmm, Odyssey of Lean Manufacturing — I like that!

Tom Dossenbach is the president of Dossenbach Associates Inc., a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017
or e-mail Visit his Web site at Past Management Matters columns are archived here.

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