Sustaining Collaboration for Decades

Menasha Packaging Corp. (MPC) transformed its culture from a staid, old-line traditional industrial one into a 21st Century innovation and collaboration one.  To some this may seem a dramatic change, but if you know anything about MPC, it all stems from its core values, sustained over 163 years and 7 generations.

I recently chatted with Jeff Krepline, Executive Director of Retail Integration Institute and National Sales at MPC.  Jeff shared a fascinating story of how, starting in 1993, MPC had recognized and embraced collaboration as significant to success.  While this may be an ‘old’ story (it’s almost 20 years old), it demonstrates the importance of sticking to your values and mission, through thick and thin.  The continuity and stability of MPC’s core values is a bulwark against market, industry and global cycles.

DMS: Jeff, why did the Neenah, WI complex’s management to ask you in to help?

Jeff:  The culture was good, but there was an ‘us v them’ tone in the complex, a union versus management mentality; nothing that would warrant a strike, but still not very collaborative.  The lack of collaboration meant less teamwork that stifled growth.  Neenah had just had some arbitration cases that caused division even within the union.   Neenah’s General Manager (GM), Jerry Hessel, knew that team-based manufacturing improved performance, so he felt he had to do something.  Jerry asked to help him.  I had recentlygraduated from college was new to MPC in corporate HR.   I proposed a 3-year training plan to improve the culture, starting with the basics: getting people on the floor to share ideas with people in the office.

We created a steering committee that made all the decisions on training for this initiative. The steering committee consisted of the GM and 2 floor management leaders (e.g., area manager, shift leader) and the union president along with 1 union officers and someone from the floor.  At the time, this was a very new concept.  The team met monthly and always went through the actual training that employees would go through.  Union leadership couldn’t say they didn’t know what was going on.  Despite the fact that management had training requirements in the union contract, one of the first employee groups refused to participate claiming the training wasn’t in the union handbook and the time of day for training conflicted with handbook rules.  To say the first year was a struggle and tense with the rank and file is an understatement.  Many employees hadn’t been in a classroom since high school and needed basic training in Business 101.

DMS: How did you structure the training, because this a rather radical approach?

Jeff:  I leveraged the concept of continuous improvement to structure training around specific work centers or machines instead of traditional cross-functional teams.  This made the training more natural, more like the actual work.  The teams were asked to reflect on the basics of how they worked and functioned, as well as on the direction of the company and the desired future they wanted to see.  Training was based on providing tools for ‘work’, like Lean (e.g., 5 Why’s). The teams reported to Union and Management leadership on what they felt and thought about their project, what they learned, the current state, the future desired state and finished by asking for approval to actually do the project.  We wanted the employees to have a safe environment to have their voices heard.

DMS: How did the 3-year plan evolve?

Jeff: The first year we focused on ‘low-hanging fruit’ – basic projects like tool cabinet organization, tool cleaning etc.  This empowered teams to improve their day-to-day life at work. We wanted to link business performance to the job on the floor.  We started with a very nice “Business Connection Dinner” between management and union leadership with their spouses early in the year.  Management reviewed the past year, discussed the upcoming year and personally thanked the spouses and significant others for the over-time their partners had given to the company and the difference it had made.   This helped them make the connection between business performance to the job on the floor to the sacrifices at home.  Employees and their spouses could ask questions about concerns and company direction.  To stress how much we cared about all employees, the invitations to dinner were addressed to them and their spouses and mailed to their homes. At dinner, recognition was given to top teams and Steering Committee members coming on/going off.  We also gave out prizes for various achievements.

To Be Continued...Part II:  Continuing the Journey 1994 - Today