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Growth Strategies

A Culture of Innovation

By Matt Edison

In his article How NUMMI Changed Its Culture, John Shook explains how NUMMI, the Toyota-GM joint venture in California, turned the second worst performing GM plant into the best plant in just 12 months. The plant had 20% absenteeism under GM and a steady 2% under the Toyota led joint venture. Product quality was the worst and it ended up scoring first in product quality in the GM system. This dramatic turnaround was achieved with the very same line employees that did so poorly for GM twelve months earlier. 

Maclom Gladwell in Outliers describes how in the 1980s and 1990s Korean Air Lines had an airplane loss rate 17 times that of United Airlines. Safety was so poor US Army personnel were forbidden from flying with KAL. Pilot error was at the core of these tragedies and nothing the Korean administrators did worked to correct performance. Today, Korean Air Lines is one of the safest, if not the safest, airline in the world. This turnaround was accomplished with the very same 40 and 50 year old pilots that were part of the problem.

To be sure, these are well resourced organizations with strong motivations for change. That said, the tactics used to effect dramatic change in a short time can be readily applied to smaller organizations. To understand the tactics first requires an understanding of the philosophy behind both success stories. The philosophy applied in both instances was to change the work to ensure employees succeed.  

First, NUMMI car designers worked to ensure assemblers could successfully perform their task in the time allotted with a reduced chance for failure. Second, engineers worked to make it easy for assemblers to identify a problem. Third, managers worked to make it easy for assemblers to notify the right person when a problem occurred. And fourth, managers built a responsive and robust process for addressing problems once raised. NUMMI created an obligation and the means for its front-line employees to do their jobs well and to become participants in quality and in the improvement process.

An ex-Delta manager hired by KAL found that Korean cultural norms of class superiority interfered with the ability of co-pilots and navigators to become part of the solution when problems arose. The Captain was treated as all knowing and to call attention to even a potential mistake was a cultural taboo. The problem was so severe that it directly resulted in the loss of 228 of 254 people in 1997 as their Boeing 747 slammed into the side of a mountain on Guam.

The fact that the international language of aviation is English provided an opportunity to address the Korean cultural communication issue. All flight crew were then required as a matter of employment to speak only English on board an airplane and to address each other by first names only. This change enabled everyone in the cockpit to more easily participate in the problem identification and resolution process without giving offense. 

A culture of innovation will be created when employees are obligated and enabled by the design of their tasks to participate in the problem identification and resolution process. The underlying philosophy at work is to design jobs for success, changing the work to enable spotting and addressing problems as soon as they happen. 

Sadly this is the unglamorous, tedious hard work that most executives shun because it doesn’t make headlines and can’t be done in one meeting or with one memo. That said, tomorrow is coming at 100 miles an hour and those that don’t have a culture of innovation will be left far, far behind.

Matt Edison works as the Reactive Silicones Business Manager for Gelest, a specialty chemical manufacturer north of Philadelphia. In his current role, Matt leads business development projects, manages the silicone technology group, and improves company business systems. His special interest in improving organizational performance to realize customer opportunities can be seen throughout his accomplishments and is the impetus for these articles. Since 1989, Matt has also worked for DuPont, General Chemical, and Inolex Chemical where his roles included Plant Manager and Engineering Manager, among others. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (267) 312-3537.

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