Brewing a recipe for collaborative success

Coors has found that embracing the human element can short circuit organizational drag. Add information literacy skills and the five disciplines of learning organizations to the mix and you have a recipe for success.

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By Rick Forsgren, CONTROL Events Director

COLLABORATE, SHARE, co-operate and work together to increase performance. That’s the mantra, but does it really work? According to Larry O'Brien, Research Director for Process Industries, the ARC Advisory Group first introduced "Collaborative Manufacturing Management" around the year 2000 and "Real-time Performance Management" about three years ago.

We’ve been talking about ways to improve productivity using process automation systems for more than thirty years, and the gains have been impressive. Where they reach the wall, however, has always been at the level of actually changing the way people in the process industries work.

Although some large companies have taken on the challenge, it would seem that there has been little real movement toward adopting collaboration as a management style. What conditions must exist for companies to capitalize on the collective abilities of their knowledge workers? What unmovable force is it that causes organizational drag? Drag is an organization’s natural resistance to change. Awkward organizational structures, ineffective processes, internal politics, contradictory information and disorganization are the biggest sources of organizational drag.

Consider the significance of Information Literacy to an organization’s ability to readily adopt change and remain competitive in the current “knowledge based” economy. Information literacy is a person’s ability to search for, find, evaluate, use and share information from a variety of sources. These sources include the myriad communications, books, databases, the Internet and everything else gushing from the proverbial “information fire hose” from which we sip each day.

Peter Senge wrote about “learning organizations,” where people continually learn how to learn together, in his book The Fifth Discipline. Fifteen years later we don’t seem to have made much progress, even though the tools to do it all exist.

The two concepts—information literacy and learning organizations—used in harmony can help process companies develop the “change workers” needed to create a real advantage. Change workers are knowledge workers who embrace the constant of change as a way of life and exploit it as a real competitive advantage for their organizations. In other words, they expect change and use it instead of fearing or resisting it.

Knowledge workers can become frustrated when their inability to find, evaluate, use and share information effectively causes them to make poor decisions. It is often not the lack of information that creates this frustration, but rather the vast amount of contradictory information. This type of poor decision-making costs organizations money in the way of missed opportunities, lost time and, in some cases, legal liability. Consider this the human equivalent of tuning a PID loop. You have little or no chance of hitting your target value if the feedback you receive is conflicting. Often, decisions are made out of personal or departmental consideration because employees have limited knowledge of the bigger picture and limited power to act on new information or change their current course. Many do not know how to get critical new information into the hands of those who possess the authority to act upon it. This disconnection creates an environment where people are hesitant to change the status quo, making it a large contributor to organizational drag.

Manufacturing process analyst and guru Eli Goldratt said years ago that if you ask and incentivize people to do insane things, they will do insane things that often have the opposite effect from what was intended. If you ask them to do things that work, they’ll do that too.

People often take the path of least resistance when they lack the tools to communicate effectively or defend new ideas. This skill deficiency can result in the creation of mindless “worker-bee” type employees who become incapable or unwilling to create new knowledge from the data they gather and use on a daily basis. Instead, they become focused on carrying out the tactical portion of their mission and lose sight of any strategic vision. They comply with policy and follow instructions they know to be counter productive because they are not remunerated for new ideas, but rather reprimanded for taking risks and making mistakes.

Florence Mostaccero, Vice President of Technical Services & Business Process Development for MolsonCoors (Golden, Colo.) says, “Coors encourages its employees to embrace and accept change through multiple approaches. First of all we paint the picture that describes the value and need for the change.” Mostaccero goes on to say, “We set up and describe ‘the burning platform’ or the ‘why.’ We then do detailed stakeholder analyses to find out what the change means to the affected individuals and thus can address what's in it for them. Leadership at Coors then helps to set up the recognition and rewards systems to motivate their employees to move and adjust in the direction that is needed to win in the beer business.” Mostaccero says that by using these simple change management techniques, leadership can move people through the change effectively, and keep engagement high through the process. In their experience, Mostaccero says, “Coors has found that people in general just want to understand ‘why,’ ‘how it impacts me,’ and be rewarded to move in the direction that's needed. If these areas are addressed up front before change is sprung on the individuals, the results can be very good.”

The key point is that the management leadership at Coors is doing the change management first. Too many times in the process industries, process automation professionals who aren’t completely supported by management have tried to exercise change management skills to attempt to use what they know will improve the performance of the plant. If management isn’t willing to back the play, eventually the drag factors will slow the change process to a crawl, and then a dead stop.

Information Literacy is a relatively new concept to the process automation environment. Many experienced and valuable employees seem ill equipped to navigate the vast amounts of information available to them. Instead of making decisions based on the entire stream of data, they often rely on an antiquated accounting model. They follow hard and fast rules and fail to look any farther than what the current budget allows because their corporate environment has made them risk-averse. The experience and knowledge of these employees could be better leveraged if they improved their information literacy skills. Moreover, their full value to the organization may best be realized when they are encouraged to think and act systematically.

Mostaccero shares that while Coors does not have a regimented formal suggestion system, with their World Class Operations (WCO) rollout, the teams are engaged and motivated to bring forth their ideas to drive better results. Their results and improved processes are scorecarded and trended to help drive improvement in their operating areas' results and are reviewed and visible on their WCO scorecards.

The process automation world is changing so rapidly that the ability to learn new concepts, create new knowledge, and see new opportunity has become a principal skill set required for success.
Organizations that foster an environment in which their employees are encouraged to develop and use these skills will have a distinct advantage over their competitors. It is this type of environment that can bring about significant reduction in the organizational drag associated with implementing new initiatives.

Add information literacy skills to Peter Senge’s five disciplines of learning organizations and you have a recipe for collaborative success:

  • Personal Mastery
    Personal Mastery is the discipline of personal growth and learning. It is people’s ability to continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly seek.
  • Mental Models
    Mental Models refers to continually surfacing, testing and improving our internal pictures and concepts of how the world works. These are the unwritten “rules” to which we conform our thoughts and patterns of behavior, often without even knowing we are doing so.
  • Shared Vision
    Shared Vision is creating a shared picture of the mutual future we seek to create. This is a collaborative process in which management shares, explains, exchanges and reevaluates ideas regarding direction and focus until harmony is reached regarding the future of the organization. This is far different from the top-down approach implemented by many organizations where visionis a mandate. Coors seems to have done a pretty good job with their painting-a-picture approach here.
  • Team Learning
    Team Learning is aligning and developing the capacity for a team of individuals to create the results its members truly desire by tapping into the potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one. This is perhaps the most important discipline for the collaborative process. Please, leave your egos at the door, folks. Mostaccero says, “Coors promotes an atmosphere of open dialogue and idea sharing, supported by a multi-faceted recognition initiative that encourages idea generation and sharing.” This development of real team mentality is key.
  • Systems Thinking
    Systems Thinking is developing a conceptual framework and a body of knowledge and tools to help businesses see patterns and underlying connections between events more clearly. In short, this is the discipline of seeing the bigger picture.  This relates directly to Mostaccero’s statement that people just want to know why, and how it impacts me.  Reverse that statement and you get to the heart of systems thinking.  How does what I do affect everything else?

Nothing New
These are not new ideas. You’ve heard or seen at least one of these theories expressed in one way or another. There is a genuine quantifiable advantage beyond the touchy-feely connotation associated with these thoughts. We cannot simply dismiss these concepts as HR propaganda.
Used in harmony with information literacy skills, these disciplines can provide an effective way to culturally mitigate organizational drag by removing the largest of the stumbling blocks.  Reducing organizational drag starts long before any new technology reaches the implementation phase. Larry O’Brien points out, “To have success with these methodologies, the manufacturer will certainly need to change processes and work practices. The human side of collaboration is the key.”

Conversely, information literacy does have a set of potential pitfalls: 

  • Reinventing the wheel, a failure to realize two problems are actually the same. This results in an overlap of efforts to solve the dilemma twice rather than using existing information. This could be related to the common “not invented here” mentality in some engineering driven companies.
  • Overcomplicated decision making when the investigators are so intent on solving a big problem that they end up making the problem even bigger. This concept can be related to scope creep, which is endemic to both enterprise IT and process IT projects.
  • Reduced privacy and security is a potential negative outcome related to information stewardship. Failure to safeguard or properly dispose of unneeded information could result in information falling into the wrong hands…think of hacking the plant control system or even homeland security issues.
  • Analysis paralysis is a potential pitfall and perhaps the worst-case scenario for information literacy. The individual or group becomes so mired in the details and potential outcomes that they fail to make any decision whatsoever. As one might suspect, this creates significant organizational drag.

Oftentimes, organizations fall into a sort of groupthink mentality. The only information they accept as valid is that which corresponds to their preconceived notions. Information theorist Christopher Burns relates the concept of living in an “infobubble,” an organizational bubble where all of the information used to make decisions is coming from inside the organization. Burns says there are three barriers information must cross to get through the infobubble: language, concept and truth. The concept barrier is very difficult to cross because information may be “contrary to the concepts that we hold about the world.” He goes on to say, “Information that is against self interest is the most difficult of all information to handle.”

A person’s ability to use information literacy skills to overcome these biases and filters is paramount to his or her success in mastering the discipline of mental models. The importance of mental models as they relate to learning organizations cannot be overstated. MIT learning researcher Daniel Kim said, “The mental models in individual’s heads are where a vast majority of an organization’s knowledge (both know-how, and know-why) rests.”

The importance of a person’s ability to create and challenge those mental models with valid, relevant information is crucial to organization health and success. “As mental models are made explicit and actively shared, the base of shared meaning in an organization expands, and the organization’s capacity for effective coordinated action increases,” Kim wrote. This coordinated action is vital to the success of the learning organization. Informal leaders carry a great deal of the burden for this cultural phenomenon. What knowledge workers hold as “true” doesn’t always come from above, but from the person next to them.

Florence Mostaccero says, “Informal leaders at Coors are extremely important in the acceptance of our ‘people before technology’ culture. We call these people our ‘torch carriers.’  In our World Class Operations rollout, we have spent the time through training and informal support of the implementation teams to gain their hearts and minds around changing the way we do our work utilizing world-class best practices. These people are the advocates for the changes we need to make and they look for ways and processes to make themselves and others in operations better than the best in manufacturing. With world-class processes, we can achieve world-class results, and the technologies will then give us the competitive edge.”

Information literacy is becoming a part of mainstream thought in the process industries, out of necessity. The growing body of knowledge will eventually become so large that no one will be able to function effectively in any aspect of their job without possessing these skills. Not only will these skills be vital to our own success, but to the mutual success of all with whom we associate. Partners will demand these skills as a means of creating strong alliances. To lack the ability to appropriately use, share or safeguard information is already a business faux pas. In the future, it will become a serious liability.

Organizations are more than the people from which they are constructed. A learning organization is interplay between people, the relationships they build, and the knowledge they create together. No expert systems or asset management software can replace the human ability to see new connections. Only by developing and supporting an environment in which these relationships are encouraged, will organizations best capture collective knowledge and reduce the organizational drag that has plagued manufacturing in the process industries for so long.  


  About the Author
CONTROL staff member Rich Forsgren is also a professor of organizational development at Concordia College in St. Paul, Minn.
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