Evart focused on its greatest asset: its teams.
With industry trends gearing toward employee empowerment, human resources needs tools to facilitate this change. Improving interrelations by tossing balls in a group juggle, stretching personal comfort zones on a high-adventure course of wood and wires, and designing vehicles to represent their training teams were all components of a plantwide experiential training program aimed at preparing the Evart Glass employees to work in self-directed work teams.
"As we move toward a team-focused approach in our operation, team effort is what counts. As a society we have focused on the individual, but in the workplace no one individual can do it themselves—we must focus on our greatest asset: our teams," commented Bert Burtolozzi, Evart Glass plant manager.
The training took place through Eagle Village's New Horizons program, an experiential-based adventure center located 20 minutes west of the plant. Eagle Village is a 27-year-old company headquartered in Hersey, Michigan that focuses on corporate training programs, family services and community support activities. New Horizons is the program within Eagle Village that specifically concentrates on personal development and enhancement.
Adventure-based training in the corporate world has been going on with organizations such as Outward Bound and Pecos River Learning Center since the late 1970s, involving elements of problem-solving initiatives, simulated rock-climbing walls, ropes courses and the outdoors. Typically, however, this type of training is reserved for upper-level management.
"This was a unique program. A small-town corporation invested in employee development from the ground up. Usually the experiential component is reserved for those seen as decision-makers. This program gave everyone the opportunity to buy into the decision-making process," says Eric Nei, New Horizons development coordinator at Eagle Village.
Several key aspects of the training program marked it as distinctive. Programming occurred during regular work hours and employees received their normal pay for participating in the program. Being a three-shift operation, the company needed a facility that could offer similar training to employees during each shift. Eagle Village offered a lighted, indoor, high-adventure, ropes-and-towers facility, along with professional facilitators willing to operate a third shift training session from 11:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.
Throughout June 1995, employees from a variety of work areas were brought together during their respective shifts for an eight-hour session of cooperative and problem-solving activities culminating in a high-adventure ropes-course experience. Line workers, supervisors and management were divided into mixed groups of 10 to 15 participants for this adventure. Altogether, 95% of the company's employees participated.
The program was the result of a survey of all Chrysler employees conducted in 1994. Chrysler challenged each of its plants to improve organizational culture and climate. Evart Glass's culture committee—comprised of union and salaried personnel, as well as Burtolozzi—chose to focus on improving and creating better interaction between employees. Then five months before implementation, human resources jumped in—researching possibilities, and later working with Eagle Village to develop a program that would meet Evart's needs.
The outcome combined cross-functional teams so employees were outside their normal work groups for the training. Teams were diverse. A hi-lo (similar to a forklift) driver, a maintenance person, a shift supervisor and a receptionist found themselves sharing ideas about how to find their way through the "electric maze of life." Through trial and error, participants tried to maneuver through a carpet-square maze under time-limit pressure. Then they gathered together to discuss the experience and compare it to the workplace challenges of cooperating to produce a quality product. Eagle Village facilitators follow the same series of questions in processing each activity: What did you do? So, what did it mean? Now, what are you going to do with it?
"I think everyone left their stripes at the door," says Ruth A. Moore, human resources manager. "Everybody was equal in their group. It allowed people to get to know those in different work areas and feel more comfortable about going to each other to talk and solve a work-related problem and share information."
Workers warmed up to the idea.
Initially there was some resistance from workers, primarily union members, to this mandatory training. "I think initially there was a lack of trust in some areas, in that this was a new training area and a new concept. There was a lot of uncertainty that caused people to come out of their comfort zones and be a little resistant," says Deanne Mikols, senior personnel assistant.
Evart was careful to manage tensions concerning the training by providing information to workers as early as six months beforehand. It also incorporated training announcements into its monthly Town Hall meetings and the employee newsletter. Eagle Village helped to lessen anxiety by sending representatives to the Evart facility to present a preprogram orientation, including slides and information about what to wear and what to expect. They explained their "challenge by choice" philosophy: Workers aren't required to participate in activities that make them uncomfortable; instead, they should expect to take on an active support role and cheer on their fellow team members as they carry out the activity.
Following the Eagle Village sessions, human resources distributed five-question surveys and conducted personal interviews to learn what employees thought of their team-training activities. Reaction to the training was positive—many employees commented they would like to do it again within their own work groups. Changes in attitude, such as people going out of their way to help others and making more of a concerted effort to include everyone's opinion in discussions, were seen by employees at all levels.
"We had people interested in considering the other person's perspective and they came back with more of a how-can-I-help-you attitude," says Mikols. "We realized we are all people, not just a division between floor and office," says Becky Martin in the finance department. "I saw the whole concept of teamwork being played out, showing you have to work together rather than just taking it all on yourself."
The training also allowed employees to see each other in a new light. As Gene Ryan in engineering says, "Personally I hadn't been on third shift very long and found there were three people on that shift whom I had the wrong opinion of. I saw they were real go-getters and they stayed positive throughout the experience; I was surprised."
Even in the company newsletter a new tone of cooperation and support was evident. In an article called "Eagle Village Voices," line worker Colette Capen stated: "I think that speaking up about problems is the main goal of a team. Eagle Village showed us this." She further explains: "To get through the mazes and reach objectives, we had to say when something didn't work and offer ways to fix it. We had to offer our voices to make a chorus."
Adventure-based training wins on an emotional level.
Experiential methodology is gaining momentum as a means of training and development in the corporate world. At $80 to $125 per person for an eight-hour session, it is an affordable alternative to more traditional training methods. Tim Dixon, director of the Corporate Adventure Training Institute (CATI), a research institute associated with Brock University in Ontario, Canada, sees experiential training as a powerful tool which can affect change within a corporation on three levels: within the organization in reference to motivation and culture; within a team in areas of problem solving, trust and communication skills; and individually by building a person's confidence.
"If you want a whole organization to change, you need to start at the grassroots level—starting at the floor workers rather than just at the management level. This facilitates a change process through the whole organization," says Dixon.
Advocating this innovative training approach is Experience Based Training and Development (EBTD), a professional group within the Association of Experiential Education, a nonprofit organization based in Denver. Kirk Hallowell, professor at Northern Illinois University and co-chair of EBTD, comments: "What experiential training does offer over traditional methods of training is the opportunity for people to make an emotional investment. The activities can create the energy needed to get out of one way of thinking, and be open to new ways. Also being in a different environment helps people see their problem differently."
In looking back over the program, the employees of Evart Glass and Eagle Village have many successes to celebrate. "Overall we feel it was a good thing," Moore says about the program. "This type of training seems to break down personal walls that people build around themselves. It gets them out into the open and contributing rather than just existing and doing their jobs."
"Using artificial problems to solve, and combining that with real challenges to face, made the experience a safe place to celebrate what each person uniquely brought to his or her team. In the end it was good to see that people chose to participate in positive ways—which is essentially them choosing their team above themselves," says Teresa Mora, New Horizons supervisor at Eagle Village.
Personnel Journal, May 1996, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 56-62.