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Can We Talk

November 18, 2001
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Organizationsthat like to start the work day with a horn blast’s downbeat aren’t unusual.  At other workplaces,  the official start time comes and goes withoutfanfare. Then there’s PQ Systems.

At7:55 a.m. each and every weekday, a simple message sounds off through employees’phone speakers: “Coffee’s ready, coffee’s ready.” All 40 employeeshead to the company’s training room, taking the chairs that form a big circle. By 8a.m., it begins: a simple gathering, lasting anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, in whichpeople openly talk about everything from financials to new-product development to whoseson or daughter just graduated from high school. “It gives us a sense ofconnectedness,” says product manager Soren Gormley. “It’s a great way tostart the day.”

Milesaway, deep in the heart of Dallas, something similar goes on at Texas Nameplate. Thecompany’s biweekly DO-IT meetings -- as in “daily operations innovation team”-- bring together supervisors and team leaders from all areas of the operation. Thesessions have your usual one-way reporting, but there’s a level of sharing andhelping across functional areas that most companies only dream of. “It’s reallycool to watch,” says Linda Bush, who provided the leadership training that’shelping to foster genuine dialogue. “It’s people taking responsibility for theoverall good.”

Andat the South Carolina Forestry Commission, managers are still talking about their bigconversationback in 1997. Fifteen key leaders got together to conduct a self-assessmentusing leadership excellence criteria. It seemed like a fairly straightforward proposition-- until the assessment itself, some skillful facilitators, and a few brave participantsgot people talking and listening like never before.

CyWentworth is human resources director for the 500-employee agency, and he recalls thatbreakthrough conversation. “Today there is not the least reluctance to say anythingto anyone,” he says. “I’m not sure we would have done that prior to thatmeeting three years ago.”

What’sgoing on here? Can dialogue do all that? Did comedienne Joan Rivers-not exactly a leadingexpert on human resource management-get it right when she coined her signature line? Canwe talk? Can we listen? Come to think of it, can we afford not to talk and listen?

It’shard to imagine anything getting done in an organization without honest-to-goodnessconversation. And it’s exciting to imagine how much more could get done, and how muchbetter things would be, if genuine dialogue happened every work day. Yet so many “conversations”are more like one-way debates and static-filled discussions. Think about it: When was thelast time you and your colleagues, or your entire work unit, engaged in open-ear,open-mind conversation? When was the last time you left a group conversation truly feelingthat all of you had deepened your understanding and were better off as a result?

Okay,enough hand-wringing. Let’s spend the rest of this article visiting fiveorganizations where dialogue is alive and well -- and pick up some practical ideas andlessons you can use right away.

Justsaying no to agendas

Likeits name, the daily “morning meeting” at PQ Systems is simple andstraightforward. There is never a written agenda and seldom an unwritten agenda. Peopleshow up with coffee, doughnuts, and their favorite jokes. If customers or suppliers arevisiting that day, they’re included and introduced. Their reaction is always thesame: Wow, what an upbeat meeting! You say you do this every day?

That’sright, without fail, five days a week. In fact, morning meetings have become a part of theculture at PQ Systems. The Dayton-based provider of quality-management software, training,and consulting has hectic days, with employees on the phone, in training, and at clientsites. The morning gatherings provide the gravity that holds everyone together. “It’skind of like getting together for breakfast in a family,” says Gormley, the productmanager.

Arethere times when these morning meetings seem like just another item on the to-do list?“Sure,” he says. “It’s like anything in life: you’ll find timeswhen it doesn’t seem productive. But there’s that overall, long-term impact.People begin the day feeling a sense of unity. And there’s so much sharing that goeson.”

Sharingindeed. Gormley says he picks up at least one big idea every three to four days-somethingthat would’ve passed him by had it not been for those quick morning meetings. In onesession, he heard a colleague report on a revolutionary product just entering themarketplace. Fired up by the possibilities, Gormley kept the conversation going in thenearby breakroom, eager to learn more. Over the next few days, he dug even further,surfing the Web and talking with others to get as much information as possible.

Fororganizations that might want to have their own morning meetings, the biggest challenge isto keep them simple. That’s because so much of the advice on meeting effectiveness isso, well, not simple. Meeting guidebooks and workshops encourage detailed agendas completewith to-the-minute time allotments. They emphasize having a “clear focus” and“measurable outcomes.” And in many cases, the experts say, it’s essentialto use outside facilitators as a way of “keeping the group on task.”

Thesethings are important for other gatherings, some of which will be mentioned later in thisarticle. But PQ Systems’ morning meetings are different. “Sure, the primarypoint of the meeting is to talk about the business, but the time for digression is soimportant,” Gormley says. “That’s what pulls the lid off and helps peopleopen up.”

BarbaraCleary has been with the organization since its start in 1984 and just might be theworld-record holder for “most morning meetings ever attended.” Her voice perksup when talking about these day-starting sessions. She recalls one meeting where aconsultant had just returned from a training engagement. He felt that things could’vegone better, and as he explained why, a brainstorming session sprang up. The impromptuexchange led to improvements in the course’s visual component-and higher satisfactionratings among customers.

Asfor advice on how to make morning meetings a part of your organization, Cleary suggests ago-slow approach. “If you impose this on people, or if you start off with one giantmeeting, it could do more harm than good,” she says. “This has to grow out of aculture that values teamwork, so make the most of the team meetings you currently have.People will come to see the importance of bigger gatherings. Start out by having themperiodically, but not every day.”

Ifthe meetings remain informal and open, and if they strike that balance between the work athand and everything else, people will want to get together every day.

Tradingin silos for one system

DebraShelby started working at Texas Nameplate as a printer in the screen department. Today she’sthe assistant manager for customer service, but a lot more has changed than just her titleand role. She and her colleagues have truly transformed the company. Texas Nameplate wonthe Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1998, and wherever you look, the company’skey measures are impressive. Consider turnover: it hit 45 percent in 1991 but now sits inthe single digits.

Dialoguehas been central to all of this success. When problems arise, employees are comfortablecoming together and working things out. Even when problems don’t arise, people stillget together and figure out ways to make things better. That’s what the company’sbiweekly DO-IT meetings are all about. Attended by about 20 supervisors and team leaders,these gatherings are an impressive display of people openly sharing their questions,concerns, worries, successes, ideas, experience, and know-how. As Linda Bush, a leadershiptrainer and consultant, puts it: “To watch a DO-IT meeting is to really see communityin action.”

DO-ITsessions have more structure than the morning meetings at PQ Systems. The company’sgoals are posted, and people provide progress reports on all their goal-related actionitems. Spreadsheets often get circulated, or someone might explain the nuances of a barchart showing the latest cycle times. All the core processes are covered, so as themeeting progresses, people get a full view of everything that’s happening throughoutthe company.

Butthe meetings show their greatest value when someone shares a problem and asks for helpfrom other work areas -- as Shelby recently did. A customer was making changes to an orderthat was already in production, and Shelby didn’t know quite how to proceed. Sheexplained everything at a DO-IT meeting, and without missing a beat, her colleaguesshifted into problem-solving mode. Several of them had more information about thecustomer, and before long, the group crafted a course of action. Chalk one up fordialogue. Had the supervisors and team leaders remained in separate silos, as happens inso many other organizations, the problem would have simmered -- and the customer mightvery well have gone elsewhere.

“Theconversation at our DO-IT meetings isn’t always the same,” Shelby says. “Ifthere’s a problem, we talk about it. If there’s an opportunity, we talk aboutit. Everything is put on the table, right then and there. It’s a team effort -- youthrow it out there and someone will grab it.”

Bushhas advice on how to achieve this organizational nirvana, but it’s certainly not ofthe quick-fix variety. Have a clear, well-understood mission. Bring the mission down toearth through a set of meaningful goals. Be process-oriented rather than function-focused.Give people all the tools they need to track the well-being of processes they’reinvolved in. And above all, give them the freedom to engage in dialogue so they can openlysay where they’re at and what they need.

Buildingcommunity through front-line dialogue

They’recalled neighborhood resource teams, and they’re one of the reasons why Madison,Wisconsin, is always on those lists of America’s most livable cities. Groups of cityfirefighters, nurses, librarians, park employees, building inspectors, police officers,and others routinely gather to talk about the neighborhoods in which they provide service.The sessions are similar to those at Texas Nameplate, but they unfold in a public-sectorsetting, and they involve primarily front-line employees. More often than not, themeetings include an alderperson and various neighborhood leaders.

“Itisn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than the balkanized things we see in a lotof organizations,” says Tom Mosgaller, Madison’s director of organizationaldevelopment. “The aim is to think as one team. We’re all there to support ahealthy community.”

Twelveneighborhood resource teams are currently in place, each involving anywhere from 6 to 12city employees. Meetings are held once or twice a month. The conversation is fairly loose,with people giving their perspectives on what’s happening in the community. Successstories and challenges are openly shared. It might surface that two or three groups areduplicating efforts, and on the spot, they’ll sort out a better-coordinated approach.Or one function might need help from another, and again, things will be worked out.

There’salso an overall guidance team, with members serving as liaisons to each of theneighborhood teams. Each liaison jots down notes as the conversation unfolds-then takesthis information to the next guidance-team meeting, where people engage in equally richdialogue. And on a quarterly basis, with the mayor participating, all the teams cometogether for a chance to share what they’ve learned.

Whenthe teams were launched in the early 1990s, they hummed with enthusiasm. Front-lineemployees saw this as a real opportunity to be involved, to be empowered, and to make adifference. As Mosgaller explains, “They saw a lot in the community and didn’thave the power or authority to do anything about it. This became a major conduit forchange.”

Thenreality struck. When teams would send their liaisons back to the guidance teams withideas, questions, or problems, responses sometimes got bogged down-and it still happens.But the teams have achieved enough success that they eagerly want to keep meeting,talking, and improving. Plans are even under way to form more teams to cover additionalneighborhoods.

Mosgalleris quick to note that the lessons from this experience apply as well to private-sectororganizations. “The universal truths are right there -- about breaking down barriers,thinking across departments, and having that kind of learning environment so we cantransfer knowledge. And you have to trust that your front-line people have a lot moreknowledge about what’s really going on than you might give them credit for. Listen tothe people who are closest to the process.”

Keepingthe conversation going

The120 people who work at the Instrument Society of America (ISA) have attended their shareof lectures on total quality. So when the buzz went around about upcoming dialoguesessions focused on workplace improvement, the reaction was mixed. “Some people feltpositive, but others said, ‘Here we go again,’” reports Molly Rodgers,director of human resources for the Raleigh-based professional society. “But in fact,this was truly something new.”

Wasit ever. Over the course of a month, employees got together in groups of 20 to talk aboutfive areas: involvement, customer focus, measurement, support, and continuous improvement.The dialogue was actually six or seven simultaneous mini conversations, with peoplehuddling in subgroups of three or four. Each subgroup started with everyone rating theorganization in those five areas using a 1-to-5 rating scale. Then they were prompted toexplain why they chose their ratings, and the floodgates opened as people shared what wasreally on their minds.

Bythe time it was over, each small group had lifted the hood on all five areas, coming upwith ratings, a deeper understanding, and a handful of significant ideas for workplaceimprovement. And that would have been a fine finish for most places. But Rodgers postedall the ratings, comments, and ideas on the ISA intranet. She also tacked a low-techversion on the wall in the lunchroom, along with note cards that prompted people to jotdown more action ideas. Go there right now and you just might find several employeestalking about those five focus areas while they have lunch.

Theresults are slowly but surely emerging. For instance, employees are looking for new waysto apply measurement to customer service and satisfaction. There had always been talkabout this, and some action, but now, because so many people got together and zeroed in onit, the effort has new energy. And there seems to be richer dialogue in various workareas, perhaps because the precedent was set in those original sessions. In IT, forexample, employees went on to have a no-holds-barred conversation about the empowermentand skills they need to achieve higher levels of support and development.

Havingbeen there, done that when it comes to workplace conversation, Rodgers has practical tips.For starters, keep these kinds of dialogue groups very small, and mix people fromwide-ranging work areas so that pet peeves don’t dominate. It helps to havefacilitators guide the process, but for ISA, internal facilitators seemed to work best. Acore group of them attended a three-day training session beforehand, so the organizationnow has its own rapid-response team ready to facilitate when needed.

Thenthere’s follow-up. It’s essential to think in terms of ongoing conversation,even if it gets started with something that looks and feels like a one-time event. That’swhat those intranet and lunchroom postings are all about. As Rodgers puts it: “We don’twant to lose the momentum. We got some really good stuff, and we want to keep it going.”

Takingan honest look in the mirror

Backin 1997, the South Carolina Forestry Commission would have seemed like an unlikely placeto pilot a self-assessment process based on the Malcolm Baldrige criteria for performanceexcellence. The agency’s 500 employees worked amid a tradition-laden culture thatseemed especially resistant to change. Wouldn’t a self-assessment run smack into thestatus quo?

Becausethings had been so static internally while the world around them was changing so rapidly,the commission’s top leaders decided to proceed in a big way. They formed fourregional teams, each with a wide mix of employees from all levels, to conduct agencyself-assessments in seven review categories. Their work would unfold over about threemonths, after which these employees and about 200 others would come together to look atthe assessment findings, decide on top priorities, and develop action ideas. These wouldbe used to shape a newly created strategic plan.

Earlyin the process, there was an all-day session with the Forestry Commission management team.When these 15 people filed into the room, the agenda seemed pretty tame: review 10self-assessment areas, all of them related to leadership; reach consensus on a rating foreach area using a 1-to-10 scale; talk about why this rating makes sense; and identifypotential action ideas.

“Goinginto this, I really wondered whether they’d be open about things,” recallsNathan Strong, a facilitator from the state Office of Human Resources who had helped guidethe process. “Not only were they honest, but it turned out to be one of the mostbrutally honest conversations I’ve ever heard.”

Asthe group went through all 10 leadership assessment areas, each person was urged to comeup with his or her own ratings. These were posted, and whenever ratings had a range of 3or greater on the 1-to-10 scale, the facilitators nudged along the conversation, movingpeople to a consensus figure.

“Somepeople got pretty nervous during this part,” Strong says. “Someone would say,‘Why did you give us a 3?!’ That’s what started the conversation; you’dget people to talk about examples. Someone would share a story, and another person wouldsay, ‘I never knew that was going on.’”

Insome cases, the comments took a personal turn. “All of a sudden, people were sayingthings like, ‘I swore that when I got here, I’d do a better job. I didn’trealize it would be so hard.’ When I heard this, I said to myself, wow, what’sgoing on here, group therapy?”

Theagency went on to have its big gathering several months later. The management team sharedits revelations, and the regional teams presented their full assessment findings. Thisseeded more conversations that generated a wealth of action ideas, many of which ended upin the strategic and operational plans.

Lookingback, Strong credits the structure that’s provided by a self-assessment tool. The keyis to highlight those areas where people have very different ratings, and to use this as away of opening up conversation. As for the facilitator’s role, he recommends a subtleapproach: ask people to reflect more deeply on their initial comments, periodicallysummarize keys points to check understanding, ask probing questions to further thedialogue, and avoid tossing in any personal opinions or perspective.

Callit conversation, dialogue, group therapy, whatever. The fact is, it works.

CyWentworth, the agency’s human resources director, has been in the thick of things,participating in that momentous first session and the follow-up gatherings, and playing akey role in the resulting changes. “I had never been involved in that sort ofconversation, where we all let our guards down and became frank, critical, andcomplimentary,” he says. “But ever since then, there has been a new way of doingbusiness-call it like it is, open everything up, be frank. We’re all the betterbecause of it.”

Workforce, July 2000, Vol. 79, No. 7, pp. 46-55-- Subscribe now!

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