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Teams Facilitate Change at Turbulent Plant

October 1, 1994
Related Topics: Change Management, Strategic Planning, Featured Article
Harrison Bentley is learning firsthand that the road to improvement can be rocky. Since joining Coca-Cola USA's Baltimore Syrup Operations as general manager in 1991, he's led the facility's employees through many major changes. But despite what's happening, Bentley and the other members of the management team continue to make every possible effort to sustain the facility's improvement process.

Management at Coke Baltimore isn't alone in facing this type of dilemma. Most people directly involved in continuous improvement discover that the process is more difficult than it initially seems. Intellectually, companies know that they want reduced cycle times, high-quality products and the best-possible service. But continuous improvement takes time and patience, commodities that aren't plentiful in many organizations. And usually, implementation doesn't go exactly as planned.

As a consultant with Marietta, Georgia-based Moving On!, I've worked with Bentley and the management team at Coke Baltimore to sustain the improvement effort. Through this process, we've discovered that the key to success is doing everything possible to meet improvement goals—even when this means sharing some leadership responsibilities.

In the April 1994 issue of Personnel Journal, I described the events that plagued the implementation of continuous improvement at Coca-Cola's Baltimore plant. The effort, which began in 1988, first was impacted when Bentley came on board after the death of the previous plant manager. While still adjusting to this abrupt management change, employees learned that the existing facility would be closed, and a new plant would be built. Approximately one year later, the plan was altered: Another Coca-Cola company (Coca-Cola Enterprises) made plans to build a plant in Baltimore, and headquarters management decided to combine the operations into one facility. As a result of this decision, the Baltimore syrup plant would be closed, and its employees were facing an uncertain future.

Understandably, these incidents had a negative impact on the plant's morale, which created a distinct challenge for the plant's management team: Productivity needed a turnaround, yet everyone on the work force was facing—and trying to cope with—the uncertainty of the future.

The imminent closing of the facility affected each of the 104 employees differently. One 26-year employee spoke of the unwritten promise that he felt had been broken. Another employee, who had been with Coca-Cola for 15 years, said she was "angry and let down" after hearing the news. A five-year employee stated that he felt the "family" was being broken up. One other employee said that he felt as if he were going through a divorce and that—even though he knew life had no guarantees—it was tough coming to work when the future was so uncertain.

The consequences of this low morale could have been monumental. However, Coke Baltimore's employees and managers created a partnership to carry themselves through the arduous period. It's this partnership that can be credited for the fact that the managers, the supervisors and the employees successfully are facing the challenges of living in a work world of continuous improvement.

Coke Baltimore establishes objectives in a time of uncertainty.
The management team knew that the Baltimore syrup operation had to continue to produce until the operation was closed and moved. Consequently, they had to work together to develop a strategy for dealing with the situation. First, senior management identified two objectives:

  • To run the business competitively until the date the plant would be closed.
  • To prepare the employees for moving to a new work environment, regardless of where it would be.

To accomplish these objectives, the management team decided to accelerate its previously determined high-performance strategy. Essentially, that meant that the managers needed to focus on long-term vision and implement the steps that would bring about continuous-improvement results. Bentley says that Coca-Cola's manufacturing operation identified three critical criteria by which to measure the operation's success: employees' quality of work life, customer service and product cost. The management team believed that if people liked coming to work and could be productive in their work environment, there would be a major impact on quality and cost of the product. Bentley says that he wants employees to feel as if they're partners: "We wanted to move past simple compliance. We wanted people to begin asking, 'What can I do to make this a better workplace?' We felt that this eventually would lead to a better product." For this reason, senior management at the Baltimore facility decided to focus their efforts on improving the quality of work life at the plant.

"A vision for an organization isn't a true vision unless employees have input. If employees help create it, they'll be committed to making it happen." — Barreda Howell, Coca-Cola USA—Baltimore

After discussing Coke Baltimore's situation, senior management decided that a team structure would provide the best mechanism to improve the plant's quality of life. In March 1993, I was hired to help management guide the transformation. Bentley says that he always had envisioned that the employees could better provide the plant's leadership, if only given the structure and opportunity. In addition, senior management recognized that a team of employees should be selected to design the new plant structure. Mike Montgomery, then traffic and transportation manager at Coke Baltimore and a member of the senior management, says that there were two primary reasons for forming an employee team. "First, it was a clear way to demonstrate that we were serious about employee involvement and [that we knew] that involvement needed to begin as early as possible," he says. Secondly, the management knew it had to design the team structure that would blend most successfully with the culture in the Baltimore plant. Says Montgomery: "Who best to determine that than employees, who worked the actual jobs and knew firsthand the kind of environment we were dealing with?"

The Baltimore Coca-Cola plant obtains management buy-in.
Before they could begin to design a team structure, senior management needed to alter its own mindset. Traditionally, the top managers had been responsible for providing leadership for the organization. Under the new team structure, much of this leadership would be transferred to the employees. To guide the team concept into implementation, the senior managers had to take on a new role as a steering team.

Because their new set of responsibilities differed greatly from those they traditionally covered, I held several training sessions with the managers to provide them with some orientation. These training sessions helped senior management become acquainted with their new role. In addition to providing leadership for the design process, the steering team's functions would include:

  • Defining the scope of the design team's work
  • Specifying objectives and boundaries for the design team
  • Guiding, monitoring and supporting the effort
  • Identifying issues needing review
  • Co-developing (with the design team) and endorsing the design-team charter
  • Providing resources, rewards and resolution of organizationwide issues
  • Offering support for the effort throughout the organization
  • Evaluating recommendations and making decisions consistent with the design-team charter
  • Ensuring recommendations fit with organization's goals.

In addition to this mindset adjustment among the senior ranks, Coke Baltimore's middle-management and supervisors required an introduction to the team structure. "We wanted to ensure that the supervisors had an opportunity to buy in to the concept of employee involvement through teams," says Bentley. "They had to have education on, understanding of and orientation to the process that we would use [to create that structure]."

Senior management faced one major drawback: For the first six months of 1993, the plant had no HR department. The first candidate for the position declined a job offer. And in June 1992, just as Bentley was about to continue his search for an HR manager, the announcement was made that the plant would be closing within two years. Bentley decided to hold off on his search. "Because of the trauma, the plant's environment just wasn't conducive to bringing in a new manager," says Bentley. Support from people (including HR) at headquarters made Bentley's decision easier. "I could call and tell them that we needed help, and someone would jump on a plane," he says.

Even without HR leadership in Baltimore, the plant's senior management knew that middle-management training was vital to the new structure's success. Therefore, I worked with senior management to create a training program and orientation materials. Together, we also formed a detailed plan to determine how to proceed with continuous improvement during the next 18 to 24 months.

Even before the new design, managers and all plant supervisors comprised the natural management team, which—in addition to standard supervisory duties—handled day-to-day operational issues including ordering ingredients, monitoring inventory and scheduling employee work hours. It was for this particular group that we designed an orientation to the team structure. Through a series of short training sessions, the steering team obtained middle-management buy-in to the concept of employee involvement as a road to continuous improvement. As part of the training, the natural management team revisited the continuous improvement goals that were outlined in a company workshop on cultural change held in March 1992. They also discussed the value of teams to both employees and the Baltimore facility.

During the training sessions, middle managers expressed some concern that this process of empowerment would lead to downsizing. As in many other companies, the supervisors feared that with more employee involvement, their jobs could be eliminated. Although the steering team did ask the members of the natural management team to take on new roles, they emphasized that the middle managers shouldn't fear losing their jobs in the process. "The concept was great, but [I thought] it would be difficult to implement some of the ideas," says Willie Doolittle, a supervisor who went through the orientation. "I knew my role would change, but how and when it would change were my questions."

The plant selects employees to lead the design process.
Once management buy-in was obtained, the next step involved selecting design-team members. Therefore, I facilitated a session in which the steering team determined criteria that design-team members needed to meet. The criteria revolved around leadership traits, teamwork, creativity, a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, attendance and a high regard for quality. All of these criteria were consistent with the manufacturing mission, vision and principles at the plant.

In July 1993, the steering team communicated the criteria to employees through electronic and traditional bulletin-board announcements and plant meetings. All employees were encouraged to nominate others or to volunteer themselves to be considered for one of the six positions that would be filled by hourly workers. Once nominations were in, the steering team matched names against criteria and came up with a list of 14 final candidates.

The steering team then asked for volunteers to serve on a selection committee. A group of approximately 50 employees stepped forward. With my assistance, these volunteers refined the selection criteria to determine exactly what types of people were needed for the design process. After hearing short campaign-style speeches from each of the 14 candidates, the volunteers voted on the members, with each person casting a vote for his or her top two choices. Following this process, the six candidates who received the highest number of votes were placed on the design team.

In September 1993, these six employees—along with an appointed manager and supervisor—started working together to draw the blueprint of the Baltimore high-performance team design. The team met three full days each week for team training, project charter development and analysis of research. They spent the remaining two days each week in their regular jobs, enabling them to stay in touch with the other employees and to monitor the effectiveness of their communication with the rest of the work force.

To create the best possible environment for cooperation, the design-team members spent their time together during the first two weeks in orientation and team-building activities, strengthening the relationship among the group itself and with the steering team. Jerry King, lab assistant and design-team member, says that this was a vital step: "We quickly discovered that the eight of us on the design team had to first learn how to function as a team," he says. "We knew that we would be watched closely by the other employees to see how effectively we could perform our task. If we failed as a team, our high-performance team culture would be doomed. So we really had to be the model for how a high-performance team should operate." Once the necessary cohesiveness was established, the design team embarked on its journey to develop the team structure at Baltimore Coca-Cola.

The steering team helps to lay the foundation.
Before they could begin discussing details, the team members had to articulate their definition of a high-performance team. To do this successfully, they discussed the concept itself, then explored how to apply it to their internal culture. Says Barreda Howell, administrative assistant and a design-team member: "We looked at our processes, evaluated customer needs and requirements, then came up with a structure that met those needs." After these discussions and a brainstorming session that I facilitated, the design team at Coke Baltimore defined a high-performance team as "a goal-oriented work group that takes responsibility and accountability for accomplishing its mission through teamwork, coordination and commitment of team members."

The next step was establishing a vision for the plant. For this stage, the natural management team and the steering team combined efforts to draft the first version of the Baltimore Vision Statement. They presented it to the design team for reactions and feedback. The design team's input yielded a second draft of the document, which was posted on bulletin boards and distributed to employees. Reactions were collected through written comments, town-hall meetings, one-on-one discussions and focus groups. Howell says that this input from employees throughout the plant was essential: "A vision for an organization isn't a true vision unless employees have some input into its formulation. If the employees help create it, they'll be more committed to making it happen."

"If the design team failed, our high-performance team culture would be doomed. We really had to be the model for how a team should operate." — Jerry King, Coca-Cola USA—Baltimore

Reaction to the vision statement was mixed: Some thought it was close to target; others thought it the figment of someone's imagination. In response to those who were dissatisfied, the design team revised the vision statement once again (see "Teams Combine Efforts To Draft Vision Statement"). In fact, as the team members complete their work, they continue to refine its message. "The validation continues," says King. "More and more employees are signing on every day."

In addition to defining a vision, the team needed to establish continuous improvement goals and measurements to be accomplished by the manufacturing process during this design period. The steering and design teams jointly came up with these goals, which included educating 100% of employees on customer service and reducing overtime to less than 1%.

These goals and measurements formed the basis of Baltimore's accountability to the rest of the Coca-Cola manufacturing system, which had to continue to operate competitively—regardless of what was happening in Baltimore.

Research enables the team to clarify objectives.
In September 1993, as the vision and goals were clarified, the design team began its research. Because the members needed to study all aspects of teams to determine what structure was best for the Baltimore plant, they began with reading material. At first, I assigned readings from books, magazines and newspapers on the subjects of teams, continuous improvement and quality. These articles provided focus points for discussion. Subsequently, the team members began to find articles on their own, which they brought to meetings and shared with their peers. Through discussion of this reading material, the design team considered the following questions:

  • What size of team does Coke Baltimore need?
  • What type of team will suit the plant best?
  • What function will they serve?

Overall, the research revealed that continuous improvement in a team-based environment can produce great gains in contemporary performance measurements related to cost, quality, speed, efficiency and productivity. However, I still felt that the design team should benchmark another Coca-Cola plant to see the team structure in action. Therefore, the team members traveled to the Coca-Cola plant in Nashua, New Hampshire, to benchmark its total quality work re-design. By talking with Nashua employees who had worked on the design and implementation of the team structure, the Baltimore team was able to better answer the questions they had posed during their readings.

After gathering all of this data, the design team researched and compiled a detailed business environment analysis. This analysis yielded specific information on the requirements and expectations of major stakeholders—customers, vendors, other plants in the system, headquarters management and employees—if the Baltimore plant were to move into a high-performance team environment. One important requirement was that any high-performance team in Baltimore be customer focused. In the old structure, people often were working in isolation—without a connection to the rest of the process. Through the analysis, the team members learned that this was one of several areas that could be improved through teams, and they were able to incorporate these implications into the structure.

The design team formulates a plan.
After 10 weeks of research and study, the design team met for five days to develop a final plan. Based on their research, the learnings from Nashua and the business environment analysis, as well as Baltimore's specific cultural needs, the team designed a structure consisting of three types of teams.

First, the members proposed that Coke Baltimore create functional teams, or teams of employees responsible for a whole segment of the work process. These teams would be responsible for delivering a product or service to internal or external customers. The members of these teams would be chartered to work together to meet three specific goals:

  • The teams will improve their operations.
  • The teams will handle day-to-day problems.
  • The teams will plan and control their work.

The design team identified 14 functional teams, including shipping, maintenance and administration. They proposed that each team be trained in team management, primarily using the company's continuous improvement process refresher program, to ensure that all employees remain in line with continuous improvement goals. In addition, the design team established that each functional team would set its own meeting times and agendas, measurements, resource needs and improvements. By giving the members this level of responsibility, Coke Baltimore hoped to encourage full buy-in and participation.

According to the proposal, process teams would make up the second level of the team structure at the Baltimore plant. These teams would be intact groups of employees responsible for a whole work process, from input of raw materials to the finished product that's delivered to an external customer. The design team identified four major processes at the plant, which correspond to four different packages of syrup that are produced. To most successfully address problems that affect the entire work process, the design team specified that these teams consist of members from each functional team in that process.

Finally, the design team designated that the third set of teams at Coke Baltimore would be satellite teams, which would work together to address specific issues affecting everyone in the operation. These satellite—or project—teams would have multifunctional representation and either could be permanent or could be chartered to deliver a recommendation within a specific period of time. Examples of this type of team could include a Safety Satellite, which would address safety issues, or a Training Satellite to plan and implement technical training for cross-functional skills.

Having created this structure, the design team presented it to all employees at an offsite plant meeting, where the employees had the opportunity to give feedback and suggest modifications. They left with a full understanding of the next steps in the process.

As the Baltimore syrup plant made preparations to implement the team structure, morale in the plant continued to build. Despite the still uncertain future, employees were excited about the opportunity to become more involved in the leadership of the facility through teams. In addition, senior management realized that the team structure could allow the company to reduce cycle times and costs while improving the quality of work life for all employees.

In the final article in this series, Personnel Journal will examine the results of Coke Baltimore's transformation, look at the training process that occurred prior to team implementation, examine the team implementation process and get an update on the scheduled closing of Old Baltimore.

Personnel Journal, October 1994, Vol.73, No. 10, pp.110-119.

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