Structured employee involvement has the potential to dramatically improve an organization’s productivity, effectiveness, and employee satisfaction and retention. This is done by leveraging the wide pool of talent and insight that is an organization’s internal human capital. Teams (often cross-departmental) and employees (at every level) are empowered to take a critical look at operations and contribute their ideas and insights. The purpose of this article is to describe the role that employee involvement played in resurrecting a large aluminum smelter in a rural town.
Columbia Aluminum was situated on the Columbia River in Washington State. Year-round work and high wages made it the preferred employer in its area. However, due to high operating costs and ineffective managerial practices it went through numerous owners and was shut down until Ken Peterson reopened it. Peterson had an “open door” approach to leadership and envisioned an engaged workforce, but despite his efforts the plant seemed to be heading in the same direction as with previous owners. After deciding that external help would be needed, Peterson submitted a request for proposals and hired the consulting firm Scontrino-Powell.
After conversations with Peterson and plant management, as well as interviews with employees, it became clear to Scontrino-Powell that the best approach would be to develop and implement a formal and structured employee involvement process designed around the framework of Lean and Continuous Process Improvement (CPI). Below are the key features of the approach Columbia Aluminum adopted.
First, they established a large steering committee of 18 employees covering all levels and areas in the plant. Scontrino–Powell designed and delivered a multiple-day training workshop to the steering committee on Employee Involvement and Continuous Process Improvement. After this base of knowledge was developed, it was important that the steering committee also get firsthand exposure to the concepts and strategies they just learned. To accomplish this, the committee went on site visits to plants across the United States and experienced firsthand different approaches for CPI and employee involvement.
After the site visits, the steering committee decided that they wanted a highly structured approach to employee involvement. They worked with the consultants to design a system, applying ideas from the training and site visits. The employee involvement system included the following:
- Training: Supervisors and managers participated in five days of training on Employee Involvement and Process Improvement. The training increased buy-in for the new involvement practices and provided leaders with the knowledge and skills they would need to support their direct reports as they became involved in process improvements.
- Facilitation: Employee Facilitators played an important role as well. Scontrino–Powell designed and implemented a selection process open only to the existing workforce. Employees with the right set of skills and experience were selected and trained to become facilitators.
- Problem-Solving Teams: These teams were established by managers and equipped with the tools and support to map plant processes, identify problems, develop solutions, and implement them.
Problem-solving teams were the main vehicle through which employee involvement happened at Columbia Aluminum. Specifically, problem-solving teams…
- Were composed of front-line staff
- Participated in 20 hours of training on Process Improvement tools and techniques based on Lean concepts
- Had full union support (many team members were also union members)
- Always had facilitator support (at least one trained facilitator was assigned to each problem-solving team)
- Were sponsored by management and committee members
- Designed their own team names and logos (some teams even had t-shirts made with their logos and names)
- Met on a weekly basis
- Were given the freedom to select their own projects (many teams started off by focusing on smaller issues and creature comforts before taking on more challenging areas)
- Focused their efforts on one issue at a time and applied Lean tools to identify waste, fix problems, and increase productivity
- After designing their improvements, teams presented them to the steering committee (it took an average of 12 meetings to complete a project)
- Were rewarded for the successful completion of projects (rewards were token gestures, such as engraved pocket knives)
- Were not formally evaluated on their performance, although supervisors and managers were formally evaluated (this helped employees take a learning orientation and ensured leadership accountability)
The results were positive and dramatic. 24 months after Scontrino–Powell was brought in for this work, over 60% of the plants workforce (600 total) were actively engaged on problem solving teams. As a result of their hard work, the following outcomes were achieved:
- Productivity shot up 6% during the first year after the project was rolled out (as the result of improvements in production methods and waste reduction)
- Return on Investment during the first year was over 1,000% (based on costs vs. gains resulting directly from problem-solving teams)
- Product quality improved and was higher than competitors
- An employee stock ownership plan was created so employees could share in these gains
- There was a significant improvement in safety (fewer accidents)
- Labor-management cooperation improved dramatically
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