Helping the trees see the forest

To meet corporate goals, employees have to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves.

As the level of competition increased over the first half of the ’90s, and as margins between profit and loss shrank, countless organizations decided they had to run tighter, leaner operations. The theory was that organizations could operate with less staff if people were more efficient — if the whole organization, employee and employer alike, could rally around the vision for the organization. If everyone was on the same page, working toward the same goals, it would be possible to meet.

From about 1995 on, Dow Chemical recognized they couldn’t afford not to have absolute alignment, says HR leader Gary Deehan, from the firm’s Alberta offices. There was so much less fat in the system that if employees weren’t in complete alignment with corporate goals, “you’re out of business,” he says. Even in industries where the competition might not be as intense, it still makes sense that work should be structured to maximize employee commitment and ensure everyone is contributing to the organization.

In most cases the models are pretty similar: create the plan and come up with targets, communicate it to staff, execute, measure and repeat. But just like so many other business strategies, it is a case of easier said than done. The message that emerges when talking to HR professionals and experts is that success is a function of the vigour with which the challenge is tackled.

A little more than a year ago, the SCA Hygiene plant in Drummondville, Que. began to shift to a more team-based approach for it’s operations, says Helene Geoffroy, who was recently promoted from HR manager to performance consultant for SCA North America.

To be successful it is important employees feel they have a voice in what the company does. So now, after the senior team sets annual corporate goals they are presented to all employees. Departments gather to discuss what goals they should set that will enable the company to meet the corporate goals. SCA then takes the goal-setting still further down into the organization.

“We want to make sure that everyone has an impact on one of these goals,” says Geoffroy. So additional meetings are held by the people who work with each piece of equipment to discuss how they can meet the goals set by the department. They talk about what they can do to improve performance at that station.

“People are involved in setting their own goals,” says Geoffroy, because they know best what goals should be set — if they want to decrease waste they know best how to do it. And if that is the goal they set, they are expected to meet it.

Each day, one person who represents the rest of the employees at a work station, meets with the production leader for a progress report on each piece of machinery. They’ll talk about how things went on the previous shift and how they are doing in terms of the goals they had set. In this way employees are effectively updated daily on how they are performing in relation to goals, and if problems are identified, the production leader is there to support the team on the machine so that they can get back on track.

“It is a different way of thinking but our people are so good, and they feel like it is their company so they bring any suggestion forward to make sure we do the right thing.”

About three years ago, the leadership team at Janes Family Foods Ltd. realized employees didn’t have a very good sense of the corporate vision, says Rosalba Bellantone, HR manager at the Toronto-based food manufacturer.

Maintaining quality was important but the bi-monthly update meetings with employees were too long and not very effective and so they decided to overhaul their internal communication processes so that employees would have a better sense of how they fit into the corporate plan.

Now, each year, after the president and the executive team come up with the plan for the year, all employees attend an off-site meeting. After that, on the last Thursday of every month all employees also attend one of three updates held on that day.

“We have a 20-minute meeting. We have to know where we are going and this is what you need to know to improve,” says Bellantone. If downtime is high, management needs to know why, what contributed to that and what is being done to make sure it doesn’t continue.

Since the communication process overhaul, the organization has been meeting targets and sales have improved, but they still want to do more to make sure employees understand what the company is doing and what it means for them.

In particular, she says, they could probably do a better job of helping employees understand the important financials the company uses to gauge success. “We are thinking of doing lunch-and-learn seminars to help educate people because some don’t understand what we present in terms of financials.”

Dow Chemical was always pretty good at aligning people with corporate goals but eventually pretty good wasn’t good enough — there had to be absolute alignment, says Deehan. Dow began to take a more formal approach to ensuring all employees were on the same track and heading in the right direction. A great deal of time, energy and money has been spent making sure employees know not only what they are doing but why — an important part of the Dow strategy. If costs are being reduced, or a competitor is beating them in the market, employees are always told why.

The first step in ensuring absolute alignment is setting the vision and then sharing it throughout the organization. But with 50,000 employees around the world, it would be impossible to bring them altogether so about 2,000 of the key leaders from across the organization gather for a two-and-a-half day session to review the plan.

“We feel that if we can get 2,000 people understanding the direction and why, and each one of those folks takes that and rolls it down through the organization, employees should understand the direction and why,” says Deehan.

Ultimately every employee is expected to have individual goals aligned to the team goals that in turn are aligned to the corporate goals. Every job has a competency profile and every employee is measured against those competencies and is expected to have a development plan in place, says Deehan.

“To assist them we have a sophisticated development process,” says Deehan. But with only three HR people for 2,200 Canadian employees, HR can’t possibly be expected to manage it all. “Starting in about 1995, we literally reorganized the company,” he says. Part of that was a dramatic reduction in the size of the HR department. “The end result was we removed a lot of the front-line touch. We had to rethink how we deliver services to employees.”

What Dow did was give employees responsibility for ensuring their teams and work groups have the right people with the right skills doing the right jobs so that they meet the targets cascading down from the corporate plan.

“Employees are given a lot more responsibility beyond their core job,” he says.

For example, every work team is expected to reach a certain collective competency level and employees get multi-source feedback from up to 15 peers and colleagues. A program is in place to assess gaps in their competencies, and lists of resources and training systems are provided to help close any gaps identified. Each year, employees are given goals to work toward, a budget is set and it’s the job of the training co-ordinator to monitor efforts to reach goals and make sure the goals are met.

Employees at Dow can spend up to 20 per cent of their time working on these non-core responsibilities. The core job is always the top priority but employees are also expected to take time to make sure their team is meeting objectives and pulling together efficiently as possible.

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!