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Team Training Puts Fizz in Coke Plant's Future

January 1, 1996
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Earl Bensinger is very passionate when he talks about teams. Teams, he believes, are the best tools organizations can use to ensure employees are well informed. At least, that’s the case at Coca-Cola Fountain Manufacturing Baltimore Syrup Operation. Bensinger has become so supportive of teams that he often forgets how vehemently opposed to them he was a little more than 18 months ago.

At that time, he was known for opposing everything the management team wanted to try. But as Bensinger began to realize he was facing possible early retirement, he reconsidered his outlook. "[My retirement] is one of the reasons I decided to change my thinking. I needed to know more, and I was willing to give teams a chance."

Bensinger, 52, has worked for Coca-Cola for 32 years. As a maintenance mechanic, he repairs much of the equipment that’s integral to the process of getting a high-quality product out the door. (Baltimore’s 104 employees make and distribute fountain syrup for Coke Classic™, Diet Coke™, Sprite™ and various Fanta™ flavors for customers such as McDonald’s™ and Burger King™.) Consequently, Bensinger spends his time keeping equipment in excellent condition, reducing and sometimes eliminating machine downtime. He likes the hands-on nature of his work and the peace that comes with working alone. As Bensinger became more involved in teams, however, he also became one of their staunchest advocates.

His transformation mirrors that of the company’s slowly evolving culture change. Indeed, the Baltimore plant’s positive turnaround from a bad-luck plant—plagued by high absenteeism, worn-out equipment and outdated management systems—is largely due to the vision of Harrison Bentley, the Baltimore plant’s general manager. When Bentley came to the plant in September 1991, he firmly established his values: Employee involvement is a critical tool in the success of the operation, despite any outdated paradigms about the role of employees in a manufacturing shop-floor environment. Within four years, the Baltimore plant employees followed his vision. They’ve demonstrated how a company with setbacks and an uncertain future still can motivate its employees to implement a continuous improvement program through team structures—and continue to add to the company’s bottom line.

As an independent consultant with Marietta, Georgia-based Moving On!, I’ve continued to work with Bentley and the Baltimore plant associates’ high-performance teams. In the April 1994 issue of Personnel Journal, I described the events that plagued the implementation of continuous improvement: the death of the previous plant manager; and news the plant would be closed after a new one is built in another city. In the October 1994 issue of Personnel Journal, I followed up the first installment of the series by describing how an eight-member design team formulated a structure for three types of plant teams.

The first type—known as a functional team—is responsible for a whole segment of the work process, such as shipping or maintenance. Process teams make up the second level and consist of intact groups of employees responsible for various packages of finished products. The third type are multifunctional satellite teams that work on specific projects, such as uniform, vacation and team-compensation policies.

Because the teams have contributed to the company’s continued profitability, this last installment of the three-part series will cover the teams’ progress. It begins with the formation of an implementation team, includes a summary of the team-training process, and concludes with an overview of the employees’ career-options programs.

Consolidate a core group to oversee the team process.
In March 1994, Baltimore managers organized an offsite meeting of all plant personnel. The design team (composed of six hourly employees, one manager and one supervisor) recommended forming an implementation team to oversee the team process. Eight individuals—including two from the design team—were selected. However, as the implementation team, the managers (steering committee) and supervisors (coaches) began their separate training programs; the groups eventually decided to consolidate into one body known as the CORE Team. This larger, inclusive body would be charged with creating the environment that would allow a seamless transition from the existing culture to one that helps create and fully supports a high-performance organization. Today, it includes the branch management team, supervisors, traffic supervisors, eight hourly associates on rotating terms of 12 months, and a human resources representative.

The work of the CORE Team is to:

  • Implement the three categories of high-performance teams
  • Facilitate and improve communications at all levels
  • Develop equitable policies for all of the syrup plant associates
  • Prepare associates for the future.

Participants on the CORE Team also are expected to focus on working as a team, coaching others on teambuilding, and seeking input from all members. Its role and scope include a variety of communication responsibilities. For example, the CORE Team is expected to receive and review proposals from satellite teams. Whenever there’s any plant news or update, members must provide periodic presentations to the associates. They also must share cross-functional information and data about the business. When the branch steering committee needs feedback, the CORE Team is expected to provide it.

All decisions within the body are determined by consensus, according to their charter. Other issues are selected and prioritized for resolution. The CORE Team Charter also stipulates meetings will be held the first and third Tuesday of each month. And special meetings may be called by any two members of the team. Agendas are prepared; minutes published; and a subcommittee of three hourly associates acts as liaison with the Atlanta-based Headquarters Manufacturing Management Team to keep it informed of issues being discussed for resolution.

As Bensinger and others in the plant watched the functional, satellite and process teams take shape, one could observe the shift in their thinking by the questions they asked and the information they shared with their peers. In August 1994, a vacancy on the CORE Team created an opportunity for Bensinger to become a member. "I decided if I wanted to know more, and I wanted to help the other associates know more about what’s going on, I better do something," he says. By joining the team, he initially faced some criticism about "selling out." But he reflected a common perception held by many of the employees. "I wanted to take charge of my future and not let anyone else have that control. I figured the more I knew, the better I could handle it."

Employees learn a variety of practical skills.
In the midst of all the turbulence, strong leadership and just-in-time training kept the associates on track. Again, Bentley’s commitment to them and the company prevailed: Run the business competitively and prepare associates with the knowledge, skills and competencies that will serve them in any future work environment. To fulfill the second part of that commitment, Moving On! organized training into three categories: technical job skills, interpersonal skills and team-action skills.

Technical job skills training encompasses all the job-related knowledge and skills team members need for success on the job. At the Baltimore plant, associates are encouraged to complete what is called "Four-deep Training." That means learning at least four different jobs in the plant to allow for optimum coverage and ease of rotation. These jobs may include filling the five-gallon containers that hold the syrup, planning the budget or taking customer orders.

The interpersonal-skills training includes communication and other interpersonal-relationship skills team members need to be effective individuals in their new team roles. Coke’s team culture demands a sophisticated level of interaction among potential team members. Therefore, we began with a program, Adventures in Attitudes®, created by Minneapolis-based Carlson Learning Company. All associates in the plant received training in listening, handling conflict, and influencing and negotiating with internal and external customers. Baltimore employees gave positive feedback that indicated the program was useful for both professional and personal situations.

Team-action skills training focuses specifically on skills needed to enable members to function effectively as team members. They include team leadership, managing meetings, team member roles and responsibilities, group dynamics and problem solving. For teams to take appropriate action after decisions are made, team members also learned how to make proposals and implement ideas. For example, when the vacation satellite team reached a decision about last year’s vacation policy, it had to learn how to make that recommendation as a proposal and how to implement it. Moving On! conducted training to teach the team how to put forward the recommendation. As a result of the training, the team proposed a more equitable distribution of available vacation weeks among the associates.

All of the training was developed in modules and delivered in one- or two-hour sessions. When possible, the training was conducted during the employees’ respective shifts. In addition to or- ganizing training into three categories, we (Moving On! consulting team) also organized the training into three phases: interpersonal communication training for all those participating in cross-functional groups; training for satellite teams; and training for functional teams, which included facilitation skills and preparing for future options.

In the first phase, the interpersonal-communication training was provided for shop-floor associates, supervisors and managers in the same class. By mixing titles and levels in the classroom, we found participants could see each other as regular human beings—not just through the titles they bore. We also found the foundation of true teamwork is interpersonal communication training. If individuals don’t have the tools to interact and communicate effectively with each other, the team’s success will be drastically reduced.

In the second phase, training was geared primarily for satellite teams—those teams chartered to address plant-wide issues, such as vacation policies, safety, and wages and salaries. To generate immediate application, we provided training on a just-in-time basis, splitting any meeting time between training and problem solving.

One example of a satellite team’s proposal is a gainsharing plan that was implemented in 1995. Members of the compensation team were chartered to research and recommend a compensation and reward plan that all the Baltimore associates could share. After months of deliberation—and after piloting a goal-sharing plan the year before—the team proposed a gainshare plan for 1995. Briefly, all associates will have an equal share of the total year-end savings the plant can produce. And payouts will be determined by the degree to which performance targets are met. If minimum targets are met, employees will receive a 35% share. If mid-range targets are met, a 50% share. And if maximum targets are met, employees will receive a 75% share.

As of July 1995, savings were calculated at approximately $1 million, and the plant was performing at just below mid-range targets. As more and more teams came on board, it began to appear that Baltimore will hit all of their maximum targets. Final results are expected to be announced in March.

Build on past years’ success to complete training.
If there’s one thing Baltimore associates have learned, it’s that success is cumulative. You can’t build a high-performance operation without laying a strong foundation first. In that sense, 1994 was a watershed year for the syrup operations. As the plant employees continued in the direction toward a high performance, team-based organization, they produced a record volume of 36.5 million gallons of syrup —an increase of 16.4% over 1993 production. The effort of all associates demonstrated their commitment to the three bottom lines of the business: increasing quality and customer satisfaction; decreasing costs; and preparing people for tomorrow.

While producing record-high volumes to meet sales demands, the Baltimore teams’ focus was directed toward key production and cost measures. Associates at all levels in the organization were involved in the process of team design and development. And at least half of the employee population was actively involved in special satellite teams. In 1994, associates participated in more than 7,000 collective hours of training. And more than 75% of all associates received skills training outside their normal work duties.

Moreover, the syrup plant converted to a three-shift operation and made the change from a seniority-based to a performance-based work operation. Even in the midst of change, overtime was reduced by 41%, production increased by 12% and the manufacturing cost per gallon decreased by 7% from 1993.

Nobody can guarantee anybody a job for life anymore. The team approach builds skills that you can take with you anywhere.

As of midyear 1995, the figures have kept up the positive trend. Volume projections were up 10%, resulting in production of more than 40 million gallons by the end of 1995. Now, well into phase three of the training plan, the Baltimore associates have undergone facilitation-skills training, functional-team training and future-options training. "The training has been focused, flexible and quickly delivered," says La Verne Potter, a former hourly employee who was promoted to human resources representative last year.

The employees who have since rotated off of various satellite teams have become a great resource in the plant. Today, they have a lot of knowledge about teams and about how Coca-Co- la runs its business. Operator Sharon Brown—an hourly associate whose participation on the Core Team ended last August, acknowledged she didn’t want to lose touch with the process and suggested she and other interested individuals should be trained as team facilitators. Accordingly, she and others with successful satellite team experience and interest are receiving facilitation skills training so they can guide the plant’s myriad functional teams.

Meanwhile, functional team training is being conducted with intact workgroups. Teams meet for one hour and spend 30 minutes each with team training and team problem solving. The training topics range from planning effective team meetings to making decisions in teams. Team problem solving is focused on whatever happens to be the issue of the day. For example, the issue could be about customer deliveries, scheduling preventive maintenance on a machine or establishing shift rotation schedules. These aspects of the third phase of training are helping Baltimore employees acquire skills, which they can parlay in their future job options.

Prepare employees for tomorrow.
On July 21, 1995 Coca-Cola Fountain Manufacturing announced it will build a new, state-of-the-art syrup production plant in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. It’s scheduled to open in late 1997 or early 1998. Volume for the new facility will come from growth and from Coca-Cola’s northeast syrup facilities, one of which is Baltimore. Consequently, the production volume at the Baltimore plant will be significantly reduced when the new plant opens. Which means there’s still a cloud that the plant will be dramatically downsized within the next two years.

Thus, the third focus of training has been on future options or career training. By committing early on that the company would help prepare its employees for any future work environment, Bentley mapped out a strategy that continues to serve them well. Now, the employee associates are learning how to conduct self-assessments that help them explore future career or retirement options, write resumes, succeed in interviews and assess their educational needs. As additional plant needs are identified, other future-options training also will be offered.

As the Baltimore plant’s consultant these last several years, I can say it’s been challenging and rewarding to work with this team of very dedicated individuals. All of them—each in his or her own way—want the best for the business and for their fellow employees. Asked how the team environment has changed her work life, Brown clearly makes no distinction between work life and personal life changes. "I’ve learned how to share ideas, how to be coached and how to coach others, and I’ve learned how to communicate better. As a result of being on the CORE Team, I’m proud to be working in the Baltimore Syrup Operation. The help I get, the encouragement [I receive] from all levels—I wouldn’t trade it. Regardless of what happens, I’m willing to do my part."

Eileen Hudson, another Baltimore associate agrees: "It’s all about being willing to learn. This world is changing. Nobody can guarantee anybody a job for life anymore. The team approach builds skills that you can take anywhere." Although no guarantees are being offered, some of the plant associates will qualify to work in the new facility. But for most employees, the last several years have been preparing them to ride the uncertain future with more confidence. In these days, that’s doing a lot.

As for Bentley, after managing the transition period in Baltimore, he’ll become the general manager of the new facility in Lehigh Valley. But he’s not about to rest on his laurels. He’s stepped up the pace of training to ensure each employee has the ability to make his or her own decision about their future work environment. For now, he’s pleased that so many of the employees understand how the business operates and how they can use their skills to move on to greater achievements. It was certainly well worth the effort—just seeing the passion in Earl Bensinger’s eyes.

Personnel Journal, January 1996, Vol. 75, No. 1, pp.87-92.

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