But to find a group of 273 employees, mostly hourly workers, who are willing to unselfishly devote their personal time, energy and effort for the betterment of their company—for no monetary gain—is uncommon.
Case Swayne Co. Inc., a Corona, California-based producer of specialty food products for the food-service, retail, industrial, and health-and-diet markets, is one of only five food companies in the United States to achieve the rigorous ISO 9001 standard, which is tougher than the ISO 9000 because it includes research and development departments.
The ISO 9001 registration, in plainest terms, requires a company to prove that it understands and meets customer expectations through product quality as well as business-processes quality. Every single employee must understand, for instance, the company's goals as they relate to the business and the customers—and the systems the company has in place to meet those goals.
ISO registration is not required for operation in the United States and is almost unheard of in the food industry. What, then, motivated Case Swayne and its employees to spend 18 months of dedicated effort in order to achieve this standard?
The story begins in the fall of 1993 when Kathy Ware, vice president of quality assurance, brought to Case Swayne President Keith Swayne the idea of striving for ISO registration. Ware said she believed that by securing registration, Case Swayne would be providing its customers with the assurance that it would supply only the highest quality products and services; Swayne quickly agreed.
"We're dealing with customers who are market leaders and have very high expectations," Swayne says. "ISO registration represents an opportunity to demonstrate to both current and potential customers that we're a proactive company that's what it claims to be—and proves it."
Ware also saw ISO registration as the solution to some of the company's marketing challenges. "Ours is a unique situation in that issues of confidentiality preclude us from using our clients as references," she explains. "We wanted to achieve some measurable standard that would give our quality systems credibility to prospects and clients without depending on customer referrals or testimonials.
"Additionally," she continues, "because ISO registration isn't required and so few companies in our industry have pursued it, we believed achieving this standard would position Case Swayne as a cutting-edge company. It's our goal to be perceived as 'the best' rather than 'equal to.'"
The company launches the challenging registration process.
Unlike many typical organizational changes that start as dictates, Ware says a unique aspect of becoming ISO registered is that it requires commitment and involvement at every level, with strong support and encouragement from the top. To this end, Ware was supplied with the resources necessary to begin the registration process, including the support of Yolanda Guibert, vice president of human resources. Guibert was brought into the picture early in the process, both to manage the cultural changes that would be taking place within the company and to communicate to employees the positive aspects of ISO 9001.
"[In early 1994] we held a kickoff meeting in which we explained to all employees what ISO was and what it would mean to them and their jobs," Guibert explains. "We positioned ISO registration as a step up for Case Swayne—one that would establish our company as world-class."
Ware announced in mid-'94 that the company was looking for team members to help guide the registration process for the next 18 months until the ISO audit. She invited the workforce to nominate people who would be good in the role. Thirty-six people were nominated; they put together resumes and went through an interview screening with Ware and Swayne. The intense decision-making process demonstrated to the workforce how seriously the company was taking certification.
"We selected 10 very energetic, motivated people from different departments, including sales, operations and quality assurance," Guibert says. "We made the position very desirable in terms of what it would mean for the employees' personal growth and for the company as a whole."
Next, a consultant well-versed in ISO registration was hired to guide the company and keep it focused on the goal. Weekly meetings of the employee steering committee were conducted to develop time lines and establish plans of action. Guibert says that every step in the plan required a dedicated effort of not only steering committee members but all employees.
For example, the committee had to write training procedures, construct policy manuals and develop process forms, and, once they were created, the employees had to prove they knew how to use them. The committee would then audit the procedures' effectiveness to make sure things were moving along on schedule.
"Keith [Swayne] is a great motivator," says Guibert. "He really got people charged with excitement for the process. And he set it up as a challenge—one that would make Case Swayne stand out as special in the end. Of particular importance to the employees was his ability to explain how achieving the ISO standard would [have a positive] impact [on] their jobs—how it ultimately would make their lives easier," she says.
Case in point: A key principle for ISO registration is complete documentation of all systems and procedures, which includes detailed descriptions of every job function and expectation.
The advantage to the workers, Guibert explains, is that this ensures consistency and thoroughness in detailing job performance. Every employee has a clear set of expectations, rather than relying on former supervisors or word of mouth for instructions on how to do the job. And the training required for registration also assists employees in their career development. They acquire additional skills and learn to be more autonomous. "In the ISO standard, employees are set up to succeed," says Guibert.
Although most employees understood the benefits of ISO registration, there were some who had concerns about what the changes would mean. "Initially many employees were afraid they wouldn't be able to adjust to the new processes," explains Guibert. "There was a fear of not being able to keep up, especially among our older employees who had been with the company 20 years or more."
To alleviate these fears, Case Swayne management stressed the team philosophy and reminded employees of other changes that had occurred at the company over the years. Additionally, the systems being developed for ISO registration were positioned as extensions of the company's existing programs. "We let every employee know that we would not let them fail," Guibert says. "We told them we would stay with them and work with them until they were comfortable with the changes and understood the material."
Workers rally to the cause.
This training and career-development task was embraced not only by management, but by employees at all levels. It was crucial, because during an ISO audit, registrars may quiz anyone in the company—from the janitor on up—on anything from company policies to specific work processes, so everyone has to buy in and everyone has to be ready to be drilled.
Fortunately, the employees were enthusiastic. Guibert says the team atmosphere that Case Swayne encouraged spurred many employees to go the extra mile to ensure they wouldn't let down the rest of their group.
"We identified a number of 'ISO Superstars' throughout the preparation process," says Guibert. "These people demonstrated dedication above and beyond any expectations."
Among these "Superstars" were employees who put in extra time during breaks and after work helping co-workers learn the ISO materials. "We had employees spending their off-time developing learning tools to help other employees more easily grasp the ISO concepts," says Guibert. "It was an incredible show of team spirit."
Guibert recalls that one of the biggest ISO training challenges was the cultural and educational diversity of the employees. "To address these issues, we developed training materials that were stimulating yet understandable to all levels of employees—visual as well as written aids," she explains. "For employees who had difficulty reading, we developed acronyms [as mnemonic devices] and other tools for things such as our mission statement, which had to be memorized."
The employees themselves took a very proactive role in the training process. According to Guibert, several non-English-speaking employees enlisted the help of their children to translate and teach them the materials. Other employees initiated question-and-answer sessions to help co-workers prepare for the audit. "We were continually impressed by the efforts employees made on behalf of Case Swayne," she says.
Within the last month before the audit, the steering committee members devoted themselves full time to readying the workforce. They formed a Walk the Talk team, in which members cruised the factory, asking employees typical audit questions.
The extra quizzing was crucial: As if achieving ISO registration at the new headquarters facility were not enough, company management decided to go for the gold by pursuing registration for all three of its Southern California facilities at one time. (The company has two sites in Corona and one in Santa Ana.) While it might seem like a more efficient way to handle the challenge, the company was also at greater risk—if any one of the facilities failed, the entire company wouldn't pass registration.
"It was a risk we were willing take," Swayne says. "We believed that if we had the motivation and determination to achieve registration of one facility, we would have what it takes to accomplish this at all three."
Swayne's confidence in his company and employees paid off. In December 1995, after a rigorous audit, Case Swayne became ISO 9001 registered. "It was the culmination of a dedicated effort on the part of every Case Swayne employee," Swayne says. "Achieving this registration is an outstanding example of initiative and teamwork."
The company celebrated with two parties—one in Corona, the other in Santa Ana—in which it blocked off the parking lots, hired a few disc jockeys and let employees dance, eat and enjoy the fruits of their hard work.
Today, the external benefits of ISO registration are numerous—the company has established itself as having the highest level of quality-assurance standards in the industry. Ware says this has been a benefit to both Case Swayne and its customers.
"ISO registration is customer-focused because a good portion of the system addresses what the customers want," explains Ware. "As a result, one of the most [impressive] things we've seen is the way it affects customers and potential clients. Our customers [now] have a very high level of confidence in our system because we've achieved ISO registration."
Of equal importance is the impact ISO registration has had on the internal workings of the company. "There have been tremendous improvements in communication between departments and between management and employees," Guibert says. "Employees have said they find their jobs easier to do, roles are clarified and expectations are clearer. It's a more positive working environment for everyone."
Added to these tangible effects is the overwhelming sense of team spirit employees feel, Guibert asserts. "People really feel ownership of the Case Swayne achievement. It has been an enriching experience for our employees—they no longer feel they're coming in just to do their jobs. They feel they're part of a bigger process. Without a doubt," Guibert concludes, "this has been one of the greatest human resources experiences I've ever seen."
Workforce, May 1997, Vol. 76, No. 5, pp. 87-90.