To make big improvements in productivity and customer service, people in an organization must collaborate across corporate hierarchies, functions, companies, and geographies. Emerging social networking technologies offer new ways to overcome these boundaries. Leading companies such as IBM, Ford, and Avery Dennison are making major improvements in key processes by creating online communities to share deep knowledge. Here’s what they’re doing:
Collaborating vertically to create and implement
In a perfect world, front-line workers should submit suggestions to their supervisors for improving work. In turn, top executives should provide direction on improvement priorities down to front-line workers. But this is rare. In most organizations, front line workers don’t have a mechanism to submit suggestions up the hierarchy, and the few that do have flawed suggestion systems. And top executives don’t have good mechanisms to share their vision downward. Newsletters and town hall meetings are slow and ineffective in global organizations. To overcome these problems, many companies are now using or experimenting with “idea management” software applications.
IBM has accelerated collaboration with “innovation jams” that engage everyone in identifying opportunities. Since 2001, IBM has used jams to get 300,000 employees and others around the world to explore and solve problems. ValuesJam in 2003 gave IBM’s workforce the opportunity to redefine the firm’s core values for the first time in nearly 100 years. A year later, IBM used a jam to bring its new values to life. In a two-part event, employees in WorldJam 2004 first brainstormed solutions to increase growth and innovation, resulting in 191 pragmatic ideas. In part 2, employees rated the best-of-the-best ideas and senior management committed to implement the top 35. Suggestions ranged from streamlining operational processes, saving thousands of hours annually, to simplifying financial and sales processes across business units. In IBM’s 2006 jam, the company assembled 150,000 people from 104 countries and 67 client companies. The results led to IBM launching 10 new businesses with seed investments of $100 million. “Collaborative innovation models require you to trust the creativity and intelligence of your employees, your clients and other members of your innovation network,” said Sam Palmisano, IBM’s CEO, in a press release.
Collaborating horizontally to create customer value.
Even companies owned by the same parent organization have their own identities and objectives. Unless they can bridge these differences, it’s virtually impossible for them to collaborate and do “the right thing” for customers. The biggest process improvements are therefore often those that transcend an organization’s boundaries — beyond the “four walls,” if you will.
Ford reengineered its global product development process so that an engineering plan designed in Detroit can drive the shop floor in a European factory. It’s taken Ford inordinate amounts of internal collaboration to do this — to achieve simple-sounding things like a common language from the design studio to the shop floor and common electronic data standards. It was far easier to create the technology than to get the management agreement to use it across functions and country units. Ford keeps all the parties, including suppliers, up to date on the status of new products in its pipeline. Its tool and engineering cycle time dropped 50% from 2004 to 2009, costs went down and it produces higher-quality products. J.D. Power ranks Ford the highest in initial quality among non-luxury automotive brands.
Collaborating globally to improve effectiveness.
Process improvement experts need to tap process knowledge and experience from wherever it is in a big company. But in large, dispersed organizations it’s often difficult to know who the experts are. Some companies are beginning to solve this problem with online communities. Using social networking technologies (Facebook equivalents) internally, people can find internal subject matter experts, ask for help, and share improvement experiences.
In early 2010, Avery Dennison, a $6.5 billion manufacturer of labels and office supplies, launched an online community to improve collaboration and accelerate learning among its process improvement practitioners. The firm’s ELS (Enterprise Lean Sigma) team launched “ELS Nation”, a community that lets any employee post topics or questions, reply, and share files. Strong support from company leadership drove membership to over 1,000 by the end of 2010. The site has markedly increased information sharing, for instance, one request for “Yokoten” (best practices sharing) and “Moonshine” (rapid prototyping) received 63 replies, and a tool for standard work developed by an employee in Asia has been downloaded 270 times. ELS Nation is regarded as a safe place to share operational problems and ask for help, and has become the company’s leading example of peer-to-peer, cross-boundary collaboration.
Emerging online tools can help you create online communities that share common objectives: the success of an enterprise (vertical collaboration), the success of an end-to-end process (horizontal collaboration), or the success of improvement practitioners (global collaboration). They presage a powerful new source of process improvement — one without the need for heavy doses of senior management intervention, external or internal consultants.
Question: What organizations do you know that are using social networking and other online tools to turbo-charge process improvement?
This article was first published on the Harvard Business Review.