Laying the Foundation for Redesign

As Reprinted from Winter 1996
A Newsletter from the Axelrod Group
Organizational Development and Management Consultants

Michael J. Freeman, PE

Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Otherwise known as "The Five P's". This was one of my most valuable early leadership lessons. Another was "never let your troops stand out in the rain". Two timeless lessons. The first is about having a well though out plan, contingencies evaluated, training and preparation complete, and people and units clear on expected performance. The other is about the Golden Rule, treat people as you would like to be treated. I have had many occasions to apply these lessons but none as urgent as when my organization , the Microwave Instrument Division of Hewlett Packard, realized that we needed to reverse a distressing business trend. A dramatic shift in our customer base had led to declining sales and unprofitable performance in various business units. Our goal was to form a manufacturing business unit that provided competitive advantage to HP. This meant delivering low cost, high quality products very quickly. A new 450 person business unit was formed by merging the microelectronics manufacturing areas of 6 different autonomous divisions into one team at one location. One of the first issues we encountered was the diversity of culture and work practices at each site. We were all part of the HP family, which carried some benefits, but roles and responsibilities, business processes, technical processes, and social processes had all diverged to various degrees. It imperative that we converge quickly to a common set of best practices.

Shared Understanding

We wanted to use a high involvement change model. We had found from past experience that people supported change more fully if they participated in defining the change. We tried to model this behavior in our ongoing work. We also felt that the complexity of the new organization was so high, if we were to be successful, we needed to have a shared understanding of business objectives, customers needs, and our expectations of each other. This participative and inclusive behavior represented the embodiment of the "Golden Rule". This was how we would like to be treated. This shared understanding would allow decisions to be made at the point of attack. So we hoped to employ a distributed rather than centralized decision making model. We felt this tactic would allow us to increase the velocity and number of decisions made. We used this as a indicator of our rate of improvement. An important note here is that if you try to increase the number of decisions, you are also going to increase the number of mistakes. For people to take a risk and make a decision, they have to know how mistakes will be treated. We tried to set a tone of learning. Many people in our team were risk adverse from prior experience. By setting an expectation of learning, we were asking people to learn from their mistakes in order to improve the quality of future decisions.

Best Practice Sharing

Forums were set up to share best practices. An examples was a forum of automated wire bonding machine operators. These people all worked on a important complex manufacturing process. By asking each business unit to send operators to a weekly process improvement meeting we accelerated improving machine throughput, bond quality, and operator skill levels. Open and honest discussion of the previous week's problems was essential to meeting our improvement rate goals and creating the desired work environment.

Launch Criteria

So based upon our criteria of a change process which could be completed quickly, modeled desired behaviors, and improve our performance, we selected the CONFERENCE MODEL. Now the ground work was laid. We thought. As it turned out, we still had a couple of hurdles to overcome. As a management team, we discussed launch criteria. We anticipated the redesign effort would consume much of our discretionary time. Several issues had to be resolved to the point that people felt comfortable moving ahead. This took 7 months but was time well spent. By acknowledging these issues existed and dealing with them, it demonstrated to the organization that management would listen and respond to their concerns. A key learning emerged at this point. We referred to this as "The Throttle Process": explicitly managing the rate of change thrust upon the organization. Too much throttle was too much change which led to paralysis as people struggled to cope. Too little throttle meant unrealized improvement opportunity. The throttle needed to be monitored and adjusted regularly. We used a chartering process to control the launch of time consuming activities so that we could exercise control of our time. Finally we felt all the conditions were right and we launched The CONFERENCE MODEL redesign process. We held a conference every six weeks, adding a Social Conference to the basic model to allow us to specifically address some issues unique to our situation. The model was flexible enough to easily allow this modification.

Rules for Success

Successful organizational transformation begins with recognizing the need for change and articulating your objectives. Other rules for success include:
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities and decision making models.
  • State you objectives from the customers perspective. Then mobilize your resources to close the performance gap.
  • People come into new organizations with different assumptions. Revalidated or modified these assumptions as a team. The CONFERENCE MODEL facilitate this review and makes everyone a partner in success through their involvement.
  • Complement redesign work by providing forums for people to get together to share knowledge and information and learn from each others' successes and failures.
  • Create a risk tolerant environment to nurture this sharing and reinforce the collaborative and cooperative behaviors that leverage an organization's effectiveness.
  • Combine leadership, including the Five P's and the Golden Rule, with a strong adaptive learning process.

We were fortunate enough to have these ingredients combine in such a fashion that we have enjoyed an average annual growth rate of 18% for the last three years. We were able to reverse the downward business trend and get performance back onto a positive path. I knew we were on the road to success when I walked through the factory one day following our Customer Conference. We had been having difficulty meeting due dates, and one particular problem involved getting enough capacitors from one of our vendors. That day we were again faced with this problem, and I watched on of our assemblers pick up the package in which the capacitors are shipped and dial the 800 number printed on the label. He asked for the company president, and was immediately put through. He explained the problem, and the president sent a shipment overnight. We haven't experienced a shortage since then. Our goal was to have all 450 members of our division take an active role in solving problems, rather than just waiting for the supervisor to handle it. This example proved that we were on the way to meeting that goal.
We attribute much off our success to the CONFERENCE MODEL approach and believe it complemented out other management and leadership tools well. Skills we learned through this approach, such as facilitating group processes and variance analysis, have become part of our everyday practices. We created a shared database of valuable information about ourselves, our customers, and our suppliers. All members of the organization use this information to improve the quality and effectiveness of their work. Ultimately, our work reinforces the old axiom that knowledge is power, especially when it is shared and supported by everyone in the organization.

The Conference Model is a large group approach to organizational redesign. The model is copyrighted by Dick and Emily Axelrod of the Axelrod Group. You may e-mail the Axelrod Group for additional information.
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Michael J. Freeman, PE
Change Management and Organizational Development

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

Last Update: 01/02/97