Thursday, September 4, 2008

Innovative sites help to provide fresh input.

At this stage in the design process, I find it helpful to take key members of the design team on a tour of innovative work places, many outside of their own industry. Each tour typically takes a week with four or five full-day or half-day visits scheduled. I've found previous clients to be very accommodating in this regard. Customers and suppliers can also be visited if they've got something relevant to share.

Host companies often claim that preparing for these visits helps them evaluate how they're doing, renews their commitment to making their design ideas work, and allows them to tell the design story to new employees. The more they explain why they did what they did, the more they talk themselves into supporting the essential nature of their new work arrangements.

Design team members value the opportunity to ask questions of their opposite numbers, employee to employee, VP to VP, and appreciate that they're willing to take time out from their busy jobs to share their experience and learning with others. They hear about the good, the bad and the ugly, and from this they form their own opinions about what it takes to make organizational innovations work and how well they're working out.

Here's an example: Some years ago, senior management from TRW's Electronics Systems Group set out to learn about better ways to organize and run their business. They attended seminars and organization design courses. They visited successful plants in comparable industries around the U.S., including Motorola, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. They visited successful plants in other industries, such as the auto and aluminum industries. They toured Japan where they visited ten of the most successful Japanese companies. Afterwards, when they reflected on their learnings, they identified the following common denominators in each of the successful organizations they visited:

- All employees were actively committed and involved in helping run the business.

- The whole organization was clear and agreed on its purpose and on the goals it was trying to achieve.

- There was an emphasis on providing customers with uncompromising quality.

- All employees received prompt and accurate feedback on personal and organizational performance.

TRW's senior management was particularly impressed by the energy these successful companies spent developing and encouraging employee involvement. They resolved to aggressively increase their emphasis in this area. Given what they'd learned, they began by describing how things could be different in a workplace that incorporated some of the ideas they'd seen. To share their vision of the scope of change involved, they contrasted how work was currently done in specific areas with how it might carried out be three years from now. This helped put the magnitude of the task before them in proper focus.

Tomorrow is poetry day. Next week I'll return to the topic of how to consciously design more effective organizations.

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