Sustaining Collaboration - Part II: The Journey Continues

In Part I of how Menasha Packaging started a culture of collaboration back in the early 1990’s, Jeff discussed the need forcollaboration on the plant floor and how the training and cultural process developed, including the first year of formal training.  We know continue with the 2nd year.

Jeff: The second year focused on applying basic manufacturing principles to each person’s workstation.  Workflow systems and processes were changed.  Additionally, machine-centered teams from the first year became cross-functional, focused at a higher level.  The teams initiated this themselves, without being asked to do so.  Each team had to provide quarterly reports to the Steering Committee on their progress.

The Steering Committee members rotated annually, with the exception of the GM and Union President.  People actually started asking to be on the committee, some because of a passion for collaboration and some to derail the process.  Both types were included and after a while, the naysayers saw the benefits of the approach and helped bring other naysayers along! In fact, one person who refused to participate in the first year was eagerly involved by the 3rd year, even engaging those who were still skeptical and challenging to become part of the process.

DMS: Was there a significant aspect of this process that had the biggest impact?

Jeff: I can’t stress how important creating personal relationships were to changing the culture. When a project was completed, the Steering Committee took the team out to dinner.  After each training session, everyone went out to celebrate, eat and socialize.  Getting to know each other as individuals instead of “management” or “labor” increased trust, which increased collaboration.  In fact, for the first time, management was invited to personal employee celebrations, like birthday parties!  What surprised employees the most was that management actually showed up, that management cared enough about them to come to their party.  This made a huge positive difference. 

DMS: So, it’s 15-20 years later, how has the culture evolved since then? For instance, it seems that using HR in a unique way, as Jerry and you did, is still part of the culture.

Jeff: Today, team involvement and collaboration are simply the way things are done.  It is less formal than in the 1990’s because it has become integral to the culture.  Lean teams are everywhere.  Lean has even played a significant part in creating our innovation mindset.  Collaboration had become the norm; it was no longer unique, which is what we hoped would happen.  Today’s culture is terrific, everyone is on the same page and the union-management relationship is very strong.

DMS: So, as you look back, why did you do it this way?

Jeff:  Well, when Jerry had asked me to help, we knew teamwork was a core value for MPC.  It was obvious to us that collaboration was the best way to work – for culture and performance.  At the core, both management and the union leadership had the same value system.  We knew what we wanted life to be like at the plant, to empower employees, to let their voices be heard.  So, we created a path to get there.  We also knew that patience was going to be a critical virtue.  The employees would think this was a fad.  We had to prove this was real, it was for the long-term and we weren’t trying to break the unions.  Jerry and the union president’s commitment were paramount.  And, as I said before, developing personal relationships was vital.  The dinners, celebrations, recognitions, parties, even just hanging out together proved our credibility and authenticity.  It took time, but it changed, and we’ve been able to sustain it.