Making the Elephant Tap Dance

As Reprinted from April 1993
Association of Innovative Managers Journal

by: Michael J. Freeman, PE

Hewlett-Packard's Microwave Communication Group's Microelectronic Operation is located in Rohnert Park, California. In 1993 it was a 400 person, multi-discipline, organization engaged in reviewing it's portfolio of skills, competencies and capabilities to maximize business performance and quality of worklife. This review was conducted in consideration of the internal and external environment in which it operated. Technology, regulatory, social, and business conditions were changing. Some changes had been anticipated, many were not. Who could have predicted the collapse and break up of the Soviet Union? This single event triggered significant market changes. Creating an environment that encouraged and rewarded positive, customer responsive change became an issue vital to our organization's success. Doing so was a multiple step process.

Why Change?

First, we recognized the need to improve our performance. The need for increased profits and getting new products to market before our competition drove this. Regulatory changes, such as eliminating manufacturing use of ozone depleting chemicals, also required a response.

Second, we felt that our traditional approach was too sluggish. We needed to accelerate our rate of improvement. We felt we could get leverage on issues by sharing responsibility for their resolution with our work teams.

Learning Strategy

Operational learning became one of our primary strategies. We used it to align teams and develop their capacity to get desired results. Alignment is a commonality of direction. Operational learning occured when we used tools like statistical quality control (SQC), total quality control (TQC), or Deming's plan, do, check, act (PDCA) to improve manufacturing or business processes. Intact work teams performed this work. Others were included when appropriate.

With these tools, teams developed an understanding of how to use resources within their control to improve process or business performance. In operational learning, cause and effect are usually closely connected. Results show quickly. Manufacturing cycle times were reduced. Steps in processing paperwork were simplified or eliminated. Causes of low quality were identified and eliminated. To reinforce this behavior, we weighed teamwork with individual contribution when rewarding performance.


To support teams, managers became barrier busters. They reduced resisting forces encountered by the teams. This is where they added value. It was important that teams feel sanctioned or empowered by their managers. Managers were their safety net. Teams assumed a fair amount of risk with their expanded roles and responsibilities. If managers ignored team suggestions, behavior reverted to the previous norms. Our work teams wanted to be winners. To help the organization succeed, we needed their help in sustaining a rate of improvement that was higher than our competitions'. How we supported each other was critical.

Risk Reduction

We provided risk free time for teams to examine issues. In a sense, this was an investment that earned a return. The return was improved efficiency and customer satisfaction. The risk free aspect was important. Risk free does not mean structure free. It just means they don't have to feel guilty taking time to examine issues. Improving performance needs to be ranked with their other responsibilities. If we had to provide some extra capacity so both shipment and improvement goals could be met, we did so.

We found a need to complement our operational learning strategy with an organizational learning strategy. Combined, they provided competitive advantage. Organizational learning and adaptation occured when we systematically challenged the status quo and the performance models that had gotten us to where we were. If the external and internal environments were changing, shouldn't this also have implications on the way we accomplished work?

Forum for Discussion and Dialog

We found we needed a forum to discuss and explore this issue. Our normal staff meeting structure did not accomplish this. Staff meeting were typically focused on short term issues. They tended to be forums for selling or defending ideas. To understand and challenge the validity and efficiency of current organizational models, roles, behaviors, we needed time to be more introspective and inquisitive. Staff meeting environments do not reinforce these type of behaviors.

Core Team

We established a forum we called "core team." It was made up of the people with primary responsibility for results and who, by their actions and words, defined organizational values and philosophy. Core team was a forum where we can leave our spears at the door and in an open minded, low risk fashion, explore our current mental models and views of the organization. This group took ownership for improving their ability to meet the challenges of the current and future competitive environment. Their goal was to evolve the organization into one that could sustain a rate of improvement that was incrementally higher than the competitions'. We felt this was key to our long term survival.

This level of commitment allowed us to overcome the natural reluctance to letting down the barriers managers use to protect themselves. These barriers can prevent results from being optimized across organization boundaries. We found we could get very deep rooted beliefs out and examined in a non threatening fashion. People were vulnerable. If this was abused, no dialog leading to lasting improvements could be achieved. This required our management team to discuss their code of conduct for such meetings and for ongoing relationships. Outside facilitation made this process easier. Our facilitator guided the process and helped the group take ownership for living the agreed to code of conduct. We also worked to support each other in practicing desired behaviors.

Make Dialog Ongoing

We set aside regular time for core team meetings. We scheduled 2 to 3 hour blocks of time for weekly dialog and discussion. This allowed us to engage in exploration and inquiry on the topics that were key to our future success. An unnatural aspect of these meetings was that often no action plans resulted. The act of trying to agree to an action plan meant positions must be taken and ideas defended. The objective of the meeting was to understand issues, each others perspective and where our models were out of alignment with the environment. This exploration and inquiry led to organizational learning. Just as we asked our work teams to learn new skills, we had to learn new skills.

Sustaining Change

The most powerful tool for initiating and sustaining organizational learning is sociotechnical systems analysis. It recognizes the interaction between people (a social system), tools and techniques (a technical system), and economic and competitive conditions (a business system). The output from the organizational learning sessions took the form of common understanding of issues and how the social, technical, and business systems interact. We discovered that closing gaps between actual and desired performance of our business unit (total system) required understanding the balance and interdependency of the social, technical, and business systems. We now have a process and model for identifying gaps and evaluating and choosing appropriate responses. The process we used allowed participation from the entire organization, and upstream and downstream partners. This expedited the alignment and communication process. Output was used to create business plans.


The contextual understanding for developing business strategies and tactics is greater because of this work. Sharing the information we learned has helped the larger organization interpret strategies and tactics. They also better understood their roles. A good communication process for flowing information back to the larger organization was important. In this new paradigm, all members of the organization are partners in its' success. As such, information must flow freely and easily. Examining and improving these systems became ongoing.

Key Organizational Attributes

The above steps are ones we took to gain more control over our future. In taking these steps, we have created an organization with several key attributes.

The first was an environment that values learning through exploration and inquiry. A structure that allows both work teams and managers to examine operational and organization issues. This has features built into it to reduce personal risk. Lower risk encourages open examination of ideas.

Second, we have an organization where we feel free to examine roles and responsibilities. We are not letting tradition prevent us from trying new alignments. We recognize this causes skill gaps, and work to help people build new skills.

Third, we value a free flow of information. This enhances peoples ability to generate and implement business strategies and tactics that assure their success. Decisions are improved by easy access to the right information.

The result is we find out sooner when a process or performance model is no longer matched to customer and business needs. This makes us more nimble. We have an organization that responds and adapts more quickly to constant turbulent change. Manufacturing costs have been reduced at twice the asked for rate and cycle times are 25% of previous levels. The quality of work life has significantly improved as measured by a standard employee survey process. We feel we are making good progress and can sustain a rate of improvement that is faster than our competitions'. This will give us a leadership position and have them reacting to our moves. The elephant is learning to tap dance.

Biographical Information

Michael J. Freeman has worked for HP, in a variety of engineering and management positions, since 1972. He managed the Microwave Communications Group's Microelectronics Operation through June 1995. Currently, he is in Marketing as the Customer Support Manager for Spectrum Analysis products. He received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering and Civil Engineering from U.C. Davis in 1972. He received an MBA from The University of Santa Clara in 1980. He is a registered Professional Engineer. Outside of work, he is married and has two daughters. He coaches youth soccer and with his family enjoys many forms of outdoors activities.


It is clear that this work could not have been done without the support and assistance of a large group of people. Gary Hochman, Dennis DeMaria and Sharon Zimmerman contributed greatly to defining and guiding the process. In a sense, they were the process consultants. Additionally a large number of people invested a substantial portion of themselves to this work. It could not have proceeded without their support. Wayne Paugh, Rich Woosley, Denny Davis, Rusty Canevari, Sharyn Bratsberg, Jim Alvarez, Nuvit Foster, Terry Swanets, Tim Webb, Mike Mikulka, Jim Goodenough, Pat Harper, Larry Rosenfeld, Joyce Orecchia, and Doug Gibson, Ted Scappecia, Ken Kinser, Adrienne Schlosberg and Kathleen Beltz where amonst this group. They and the entire microelectronics team of 400 people, deserve the credit for this work.


Return to: Articles & Reference

Michael J. Freeman, PE
Change Management and Organizational Development

You can contact Michael J. Freeman by E-mail.

Last Update: 12/15/96;