The New American Workplace by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Magazine April 2004
For the three years between 2001 and 2004, I had the privilege of working in what I have come to call the new American workplace. It was an American workplace simply because the geographic location of the facility was in the United States of America . Otherwise, the workplace was really not “American” at all. We had a very diverse, international workforce, a leadership team that was 50% female, a customer focus that consistently discounted labor savings in order to turn custom orders around quickly and ship each one on time, and a job design that was highly participative. In summation, it can easily be said that we were not your traditional American manufacturing facility.
For years, I had preached about the differences between a traditional workplace and a high performance workplace, with things like self-directed work teams, a high quality focus, and systems-oriented leadership being some of the key attributes of my high performance model. While I had seen most of these approaches practiced on a piece meal basis, and I was convinced of their merit, I had yet to see what would really happen if they were all combined into one.
Having lived and worked in the Midwest for a majority of my life, I had little exposure to the advantages of workplace diversity. I was unaware of the qualities people from different countries could bring to work each day, and how those qualities could strongly influence customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and cost effectiveness. I, like many others, chose to think that a diverse workplace was not much different than the ones I had worked in previously. Boy was I wrong!
In a similar vein, I was also unaware of the difference it can make when you have a gender-balanced leadership team as compared to one that was predominantly male. The group dynamics were different, the conversations were different, and the resultant strategies were different. We were less formal than groups I had been a part of in the past, but we still got the job done. Feelings carried a greater weight than they did with previous leadership teams, but we were still able to hammer out a strategic plan each year.
This combination of gender and ethnic diversity facilitated the growth of our high performance work practices. To begin with, a majority of the operations workforce did not possess ineffective mental models of how work should be done because they had not spent much time working in other American manufacturing plants, and because their backgrounds stressed a higher work ethic then the ones we are gravitating towards as an American society. Stressing customer focus over efficiency did not require near as much selling on my part as it had in other places for example.
Even with a diverse work group (we had as many as ten different countries represented on our teams), we were able to attain a high level of both teamwork and self-direction. The lack of mental models that said “work isn't done this way” helped make this happen, but I think the fact that we were diverse by nature and preached the value of that diversity had much more to do with helping us create the work environment we ended up with.
During the three years I was there, we grew in size by at least 9% a year. In the third year, we achieved 40% annual growth even in a down economy. Before coming to the new American workplace, I had been a part of a company that was profitable each year and doubled in size over five years, but I had never witnessed this degree of growth, especially in a single year. I strongly believe that the work philosophies and practices we followed made this growth possible. I also strongly question whether a ‘normal' American workplace would have been able to sustain the level of customer focus necessary to grow at this rate while also remaining profitable.
To me however, the most salient point of all is that I feel that this was the best team that I have ever been a part of. These people, especially the operations team which was the most diverse I had ever been associated with, made things happen performance wise that I had only read about in books and dreamed of at night. Their safety record was impeccable. Their turnover and absenteeism rates were near ‘best in class' levels. We rarely missed an order even though cycle times were relatively short, and we were able to absorb the majority of the growth through system changes instead of hiring people.
The team's desire, and ability, to improve their performance over time and sustain those new levels of performance were on par with the ‘best of the best' that I had learned about as a Baldrige Quality Award Senior Examiner. The number of personnel issues I had to address was much lower than in other places where I had worked. In my mind, this was primarily due to the international nature of our workforce – their cultures, work ethic, appreciation of differences, and lack of ineffective mental models.
We weren't perfect by any means. We did not follow procedures to the letter in some cases, and we were notorious for having gaps in some our paperwork. We had little spats from time to time among people. We even used intuition and instinct on occasion to a greater degree than an ISO auditor would have been happy with. We always ensured that we were making a safe product, but we would cut some non-food safety bureaucratic corners if we needed to in order to satisfy a customer. Did these practices help or hinder us in the long run? Only time will tell.
Will the American workplaces of the future resemble the workplace that I was a part of for three years? Based on the trends I see occurring, I would say yes. We cannot expect customers to ease up on their requirements, and in fact, they will probably only expect more as time goes on. We can also not expect our workforces to stay as homogeneous as they are now – we will continue to see immigration and migration trends affecting our workforce demographics. Finally, I do not believe we can meet the needs of our future customers, and in turn grow as businesses, unless we adopt a lot of the practices that I have now seen work. Are you ready to be a part of the new American workplace?
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