June 2005

The Three Circles of Solidarity - Epilogue

The goal for newly empowered employees is "Rapid Continuous Improvement."

By Tom Dossenbach

Implementing a Rapid Continuous Improvement Program

The steps required to engage empowered employees with meaningful Rapid Continuous Improvement (RCI) activities include:

  • Set SMART goals and objectives that will give the company direction
  • Appoint a RCI coordinator.
  • Communicate the objectives and purpose of the RCI teams to all employees.
  • Educate employees on the basics of how continuous improvement teams will work together.
  • Identify the most critical area to begin RCI.
  • Form an RCI team to address one of the most critical areas needing RCI. As this team scores successes, create additional teams.
  • Coach the RCI team to develop an action plan.
  • Provide timely feedback and approvals as necessary.
  • Measure the progress toward RCI objectives.
  • Give timely feedback and celebrate results.
  • Repeat steps 5 thru 10 as often and with as many teams as manageable.

Between February and April, I wrote a series of articles on the three circles of solidarity — Communication, Integrity and Empowerment. Solidarity helps make a company strong and able to withstand the trials and tribulations of today's fierce competition. We defined a company with solidarity as one in which there is a union of interests, a purpose, a fellowship of responsibilities and a common feeling that all the employees are in the same boat.

I received several e-mails from readers regarding the third circle - Empowerment. One was from Bill, an operations manager in Minnesota. He said he was curious to learn how the employees of the fictitious Deep River Millwork might use their newfound empowerment to help turn around the company's fortunes. Good suggestion, Bill. Here goes.

As the column ran out of its allotted space in April, Ken Crowson, the owner of DRM, had apologized to his employees and told them he was placing the controls to the company's future in their hands. He indicated that he totally trusted them to help build solidarity within the company so they could regain their No. 1 position in the market.

Set SMART Goals

While Crowson loosened his hold of the reins, as owner and CEO, his ability to lead was still a big part in the company's ultimate success or failure. Empowering DRM employees did not eliminate his personal responsibility of setting the overall goals and objectives for the company. The owner or upper management of a company is in a better position to set the direction for the company then the employees in the trenches.

Additionally, empowerment does not mean that once those goals and objectives are set, the empowered employees are left on their own. Constant feedback and communication on how things are going is essential. (As I documented in the February column, lack of communication was a major weakness at DRM.)

Crowson, or any CEO, must formulate his own list of strategies for his company, incorporating as much input from others as is productive. These strategies can be a detailed road map to follow for a large company or a simple list of goals and objectives for a smaller company. In either case, there should be a timeline attached so that each member of the company's team not only knows what goals to shoot for, but also when certain milestones should be reached.

Choose a Coordinator

Next, Crowson had to identify someone who would monitor the rapid continuous improvement (RCI) process and provide timely feedback to him and the working teams. This person can be viewed as a facilitator, a coach or a coordinator. The main point is that Crowson must have someone that can keep the program focused on the written goals and objectives.

If you are the owner of a small company of just 12 employees, you may be this person. If you own a very large company, you may need to create a full-time position for this role. In any event, look at this person as one to keep everyone focused and not a supervisor of the process. Ken chose Robert, the plant engineer, as DRM's coordinator because of his communication skills and attention to detail.


It deserves repeating that the goals and objectives of the RCI program must be communicated to all employees. This does not mean that Crowson could simply post an announcement on the company's bulletin board and expect everyone to read it. Crowson's success or failure depends on two-way communications throughout the entire organization. He needs to explain the purpose and goals of RCI and how each employee's involvement is paramount to making it work.

Educate and Train

Would you put your 12-year-old son in the driver's seat of your car, start the engine, tell him to drive to New York and then get out of the car to let him continue on his own? Of course not. You would make sure he was trained and educated and had a driver's license for a long time before sending him on such a trip alone. Likewise, you should no sooner send your empowered employees to tackle the problems and challenges out in the plant before training them on how to manage the new problem-solving responsibilities they have been given.

In the case of DRM, every employee was scheduled to receive RCI training and be told how to work together with each other. They must be clued in about ground rules, documentation, process of review, accountability, etc. This comprehensive program starts with training the RCI coordinator.

Identify the Most Critical Issue

The next step of engaging those who are empowered in the process, is to identify the most critical issues the company faces that can be addressed by a team. This was tougher than it seemed for Crowson because his company had become a wreck of its former self. He had to take care not to combine too many issues into one huge project that would never be completed.

Brainstorming is a good way to bring issues to the table posing the most serious obstacles to a company's ability to reach its goals and objectives. DRM concluded that customer returns were the most urgent constraint to productivity.

Form a Team

When the time arrived for Crowson to form teams to begin the RCI process, he had to fight the temptation to form them all at once. It is far better to start with one or two teams, representing one department, to get some experience under your belt before moving forward with the creation of more teams. After initial success, DRM will be ready for a second team, then a third and maybe a fourth.

It is important not to go faster than your coordinator can keep up with or you risk having the entire process spin out of control. If this happens, the likely result is employee frustration, which will cause the RCI efforts to stall.

Crowson and Robert analyzed the company's product returns and found that windows had the greatest rate of return. Based on this observation, they picked a team made up of employees in the window shop. Eight of the shop's 12 workers volunteered to serve on the team. The decision was made to split the team in two - one from the casement line and one from the double-hung line. Each of the teams chose a leader to help guide it along its journey and keep the project manageable.

Coach the Team

Once DRM had two teams in place, it needed to formulate an action plan to address the constraint they identified (returned windows) with input from Crowson and Robert, the RCI coordinator. Creating an action plan was a detailed process that required documenting and organizing the sequence of events, activities, schedule and responsibilities that must take place to remove the constraint.

Each of DRM's two teams then began looking for the root causes of the returns, a process which involved asking who, what, where, when and how? Their assigned task was to look for the basic reasons for why returns were so high, come up with possible solutions and recommend corrective action to solve the return problems in the casement and double-hung lines.

Provide Feedback to the Team

DRM's window shop teams needed guidance from top management as they moved forward. In addition, they required approvals as they began to formulate potential solutions to the return problems.

At different points of the process, they brought in people from other departments of the plant to contribute to the issues they were evaluating. They also required resources to help in the implementation process, such as having the maintenance department repair equipment or make jigs and fixtures.

Measure Progress

In each step along the way, Robert was on top of everything, documenting the action plans and charting the progress of the RCI program.

DRM's teams concluded that size mistakes were being made in the take-off department. In far too many instances, the proper window sizes were not being entered into the production schedules. Thus, new procedures were developed and documented for that process. In addition, DRM began tracking and reporting mistakes so corrective actions could be immediately taken. The teams recommended putting charts and graphs on the wall so that all employees could see the weekly progress.

Celebrate Results

As Robert tracked the RCI program, he gave timely feedback to the teams. The visual charts were a good idea. Crowson decided to set up an RCI "War Room," where these and other project reports were posted. The room was also used for RCI team meetings.

As significant progress was made at DRM, and milestones were reached, Crowson made a point of recognizing the teams and departments that participated. One of the most popular rewards was hot pizza lunches.

Crowson learned never again to neglect giving credit where credit is due!

RCI is Continuous

The good news in this epilogue is that Crowson and DRM made a huge turnaround in a short period of time.

In addition, they never slowed down their RCI efforts and continued to look for ways to cut costs and give their customers better quality products with better value and service.

Bill from Minnesota, I hope this helps you get started capitalizing on your company's greatest assets - your empowered employees.

Tom Dossenbach is managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. He can be reached at (919) 775-5017, or at his firm's Web site: www.dossenbach.com.


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