Active Listening – How to Improve Morale and Rapidly Improve Throughput
In today’s blog posting I want to talk about a very powerful technique I refer to as Active Listening. This posting is directed at companies where the workforce morale is not good and for all of those companies who need a rapid improvement in throughput. I’ve been using this “technique” for the last ten years and every time I do, rapid improvement in throughput has happened.
Many companies today praise themselves for how well they “involve” their workforce in their improvement efforts. In fact, if you go into many companies you’ll probably see a wall of pictures that support the contention that “our people are involved.” And although I love seeing this “gallery of involvement photos,” many times they are just photos. So the question becomes, just how involved are the subject matter experts (SME’s) within your company? This depends on what your definition of involved really is and who you believe are your SME’s. Involvement in many companies is simply participation on improvement teams. But in my mind, simply participating on a team is not enough to generate significant improvement. Why not? I think the best way to answer this question is through a simple case study based upon a consulting engagement that I was fortunate enough to lead.
This company was in the Aviation MRO (i.e. Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) industry and was a contractor to the Department of Defense (DoD). This company, by contract, was required to supply a pre-determined number of aircraft every day and if they didn’t, they were assessed a significant financial penalty based upon the number of aircraft that they failed to deliver. This company was struggling to meet demand and the results were getting worse. So much so, the corporate office replaced the site leader in hopes of turning this company around. In addition to the financial losses for missed aircraft availability, this company was paying a huge amount of money on mandatory maintenance overtime in an attempt to “right the ship” so to speak. One of the consequences of this mandatory overtime, which I might add had been in place for months prior to my arrival, was extremely low workforce morale. The more overtime the maintenance workforce was mandated to work, the lower the morale became. Call-in’s and absenteeism were high as well which were directly the result of this constant overtime.
Upon arriving to this site, I met with the new site leader to discuss his issues and it was clear to me that he was frustrated. And while the out-going leader’s management style was command and control (i.e. do it my way!!), the new leader believed in listening to fresh new ideas. I asked him if he was ready to involve his people and he replied that they already did. I asked him who his SME’s were and he gave me a list of technical people (i.e. engineers, supervisors, etc.) on site. I then responded with, “So these are the people that physically maintain the aircraft?” His response was, “Well no, but they are the experts.” I just smiled back and said, “No they aren’t.” I explained to him that the true SME’s are the people that maintain the aircraft…..the mechanics, the avionic’s techs, the QA folks, the maintenance control people, the flight-line workers and logistics workers. The look on his face was priceless….like he had just had an epiphany of sorts. I then explained my version of employee involvement…..Active Listening.
I told him that if he wanted to rapidly turn-around his results, the first thing he needed to do was form a team comprised of only SME’s. This team needed to be made up of all of the maintenance related disciplines, but that membership needed to be completely voluntary and wherever possible, it needed to be the informal leaders of the workforce (I might add that this was a union environment). I then explained the central concept of Active Listening which is, the managers would not only listen to the core team’s ideas, but as long as their solutions didn’t violate any customer or company policies, they needed to be implemented exactly as stated by this core team. I further explained that this would be difficult, if not impossible, for some of his managers and supervisors to do, but that it was absolutely necessary. The site leader’s response was very positive.
Several days later we had our first core team meeting. We mapped the maintenance process first to make certain that everyone understood exactly how it was working. This was a valuable learning experience for some of the team members because they got to see firsthand how their work impacted the flow of aircraft through the maintenance process. I then presented the basics of the Theory of Constraints to this core team and, without exception, everyone understood. As a team we identified the system constraint to be all of the actions required to be completed (e.g. approvals) before maintenance work could begin on the aircraft. I then gave them training on the Interference Diagram (I’ve written about the ID on a past posting) and asked the group for solutions to each of the interferences they had identified. There was skepticism that management would implement their solutions, but the site leader assured them that their ideas and solutions would be implemented exactly as presented. As this first meeting ended, we asked the members to go solicit additional ideas from their co-workers.
To make a long story short, the ideas came from everywhere and most of them were implemented exactly as stated. The core team itself was responsible for deciding which shop floor ideas would or would not be implemented. You could see the workforce morale changing…..improving and growing. We met with this team twice a week and began a brief newsletter of sorts to communicate the actions of the core team. The results came swiftly and within 2-3 weeks, aircraft availability targets were being consistently met. In 3-4 weeks, all mandatory overtime was stopped. The workforce morale jettisoned upward and availability targets were met at an even better rate…..all of this because of Active Listening, the identification of the system constraint and focusing our improvement efforts (the core team’s solutions) directly on it.