On the job

by Emily Wilson
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Improving the workplace is not always about getting fancier equipment, putting up more safety signs and rules or repainting the walls. One U.S. milling company found that altering attitudes and expectations was the key to achieving low turnover, high productivity, quality products and a team spirit.

More and more corporations are realizing that its employees are its key assets — and many corporate policies are following suit. David Neff, vice-president of operations for Southeastern Mills, Rome, Georgia, sums it up well: "Eighty percent of what any organization does can be done equally well by any other organization; therefore, competitive success depends entirely upon the other 20%, which is people."

In May, at the Association of Operative Millers' 104th annual technical conference and trade show in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., Mr. Neff shared his experiences of transitions within Southeastern Mills at a technical session entitled "The high performance workplace."

Southeastern Mills, Inc., which owns Southeastern Mills and the Rome-based Custom Food Coatings (CFC) plant, began its journey six years ago, when the owners felt they were not prepared to manage the future growth of the company. A consulting agency, Bottom Line Techniques, also based in Rome, was hired to train managers and supervisors to be leaders and coaches.

The training continued for three years and inspired a desire among Southeastern Mills' owners and managers to achieve a "High Performance Work Place (HPWP)." For the next three years, the company spent countless hours on employee training and restructuring company policies to reflect the new philosophy of a decentralized leadership culture.

Because employers lose credibility with employees when these types of programs are introduced and then fail to take hold, Southeastern Mills spent the extra years in preparation, Mr. Neff said. HPWP is a common-sense approach to managing people, and Southeastern mills did not want its program to be the next "flavor of the month," he added.

FIGHTING TRADITION. Southeastern Mills, with two flour milling units, one corn milling unit and eight packaging lines, has almost 200 employees — all of whom were about to experience an overwhelming change as the company moved away from "traditional" management approaches to ones that yielded more positive results.

"In a traditional management environment, company management is too focused on the small number of employees who don't have the best interests of the company in mind," Mr. Neff said. That small number of people only represents about 5% of the workforce, although most work rules and codes of conduct were established to protect against the so-called "5-percenters," he said.

Southeastern Mills' new strategy was to adopt policies and management approaches that focus on the 95% of employees who are responsible, hard- working adults.

In a traditional work environment, management tends to have negative assumptions about the people that work for them, Mr. Neff said. In this type of environment, he explained, if three people were standing around talking, most managers would assume that the employees were goofing off.

Besides creating a barrier between production workers and managers, such negativity can also impede performance. Actions such as minimizing employee knowledge of the company, making key decisions without employee input and using pressure tactics to increase productivity create an "us versus them" mentality, Mr. Neff said. These negative actions and assumptions yield negative results, including absenteeism, tardiness, high turnover, low productivity and low morale, he added.

Since its opening in the 1930s, Southeastern Mills fit that description — that is, until it decided to adopt the HPWP philosophy to meet its objectives: low turnover, high attendance, positive morale, high productivity, excellent customer service, personal achievements, increased profits and extremely high quality products.

THE PHILOSOPHY. Mr. Neff defined the HPWP program as an environment of high expectations and adult behavior that fosters maximum performance. The program's success relies on seven key elements: positive assumptions about people, identification and elimination of negative policies and practices, mutual trust and respect, open two-way communication, training, employee involvement and competitive wages and benefits.

"It is extremely difficult to model adult-to-adult behavior unless you are operating with positive assumptions about people," Mr. Neff said. This is a belief that people work hard toward objectives, assume responsibility and desire the organization's success.

"Negatives" are defined as anything that minimizes rather than maximizes a person's feeling of value to the organization, Mr. Neff said, and for the second key element, must be eliminated.

Southeastern Mills had to overcome many of its negative "symbols of second-class status." The mill was concerned with "Thou shalt not" work rules, different benefits per job, probationary periods for benefits and holidays, specific and limited funeral leave, doctor's slip proof for absence, reserved parking, time clocks and disciplinary suspensions.

"The elimination of negatives has been a primary area of focus for our company during the past three years," Mr. Neff said. "I am happy to report that none of the before-mentioned symbols currently exist at Southeastern Mills."

Mutual trust and respect is the third — and often most difficult — key element. Management can demonstrate trust to the employees, Mr. Neff suggested, by unlocking doors and offices, making tools and materials available, assuming the best of employees, engaging communication and having high expectations. "People know when you trust them and have a built-in gyroscope that causes them to try to live up to the trust that is placed in them," Mr. Neff said.

Training and developing people is another key element, and Mr. Neff insists that it has been crucial to the company's HPWP success. "A company's investment in training reflects its value for the people," he said. Since implementing HPWP, Southeastern Mills has held leadership workshops, sponsored out-of-town operator training sessions, began interview training for a new employee-based hiring team and sent millers to Europe for training as well as other training sessions focusing on leadership, technical and team skills.

Open communication bridges all of the elements, and is the fifth crucial key element. "It was amazing when we started this journey how many of our employees were not clear about what their job was and the expectations required of them," Mr. Neff said. In response, Southeastern Mills began holding new employee orientations, conducting employee surveys, performance appraisals and one-on-one, team, staff and plant-wide meetings. A new company newsletter, the "Wheat Street Journal," also was established.

Involving employees in decisions is an extremely beneficial element, he said. Employees can be involved in selecting team leaders, interacting with customers, coaching or counseling peers and setting performance goals, objectives and team work policies.

The final key element of the HPWP program is ensuring that the organization provides competitive wages and benefits. "Our goal in providing competitive wages and benefits is to make this a non-issue," Mr. Neff said. "If people do not believe that their compensation is fair, it violates their trust in the company."

Southeastern Mills created an economic value added sharing plan to reward employees for meeting the company's financial goals, thus linking employee contribution and compensation, Mr. Neff said.

HPWP is an over-arching program that can effect every aspect of daily business. Mr. Neff told the following story to exemplify the HPWP program:

"Remember the example earlier of three workers standing around talking? A positive assumption would be that they were discussing a work issue and brainstorming ways to make something better. A similar situation recently occurred in our CFC plant. Three co-workers were sitting in the break room, talking, when our company president and I entered the room. It was not the normal break time and a management team member was on the shop floor, running the line. The plant had barely missed its monthly production goal, and these three employees were discussing things that they would do different to make their goal in the month that had just started. Guess what? Yes, they made their target for the month and have exceeded that target since."

IMPLEMENTING HPWP. Mr. Neff admitted that six years ago, Southeastern Mills was "about as far way as from these principles as you can get." The company did not invent this program, but its top management wanted this type of workplace. So the company took the key points and customized the HPWP program to its own needs.

The preparation— getting the owners, managers and supervisors comfortable with the HPWP high-trust management philosophy — was the hardest part of the journey, he said.

"Changing the habits of traditional management philosophies is a very difficult task," he said. "The toughest part for the supervisor group is setting high expectations and holding people accountable for their actions."

After establishing a fully trained managerial staff, Southeastern Mills then outlined specific plans to achieve HPWP objectives. First, to create an expectation of change, employees were alerted that changes were coming. "But since all change — even good change — is resisted, we learned to view chaos and anxiety as positive signs that our culture was in transition," Mr. Neff said.

Second, the full wall of work rules in the mill lunchroom was replaced with one rule: "I will act in the best interest of the company and my fellow employees."

Southeastern Mills also eliminated its attendance control policy and discarded its discipline program, the standard verbal warning, written warning, final written warning, suspension procedure. Coaching and counseling is its new solution, designed to identify the root cause of problems and to give opportunities for improvement.

The company also set up a new hiring procedure in which two supervisors and five production employees do the interviewing and hiring. Employees are rotated through the hiring team so that each can participate, and all employees are trained in interviewing techniques and employment law guidelines.

"The quality of our hires has increased dramatically and turnover has dropped significantly since we started this program," Mr. Neff said. "We are currently averaging less than 1½% absenteeism."

Southeastern Mills further demonstrated its trust and high expectations of its employees by involving them in group decisions. "We use group problem solving now for just about everything," Mr. Neff said. "When we have a lot of employee involvement, we are almost always certain that we have made better decisions." Employees have since recognized, addressed and resolved workplace problems on their own, Mr. Neff said.

The company's most sweeping and hard-to-achieve decisions included making all employees salaried, equalizing benefit plans, getting rid of all time clocks and eliminating probationary periods for time off for new employees. At the CFC plant, employees set their own schedules based on the customer orders for the week. "This way," Mr. Neff explained, "they can make sure that they are off on the weekends. All of our benefits improvements over the past five years send a strong message to our people that they are valued."

THE EFFECTS. While these plans were being formulated, the new Custom Food Coatings division was about to open. The company realized it was the perfect time to implement the program, Mr. Neff said. After a plant superintendent was chosen, four employees from the mill were selected to work in the CFC plant and to form a hiring core that hired the remaining team members for the new plant.

"The CFC employees immediately became involved in the new plant project," he said. Some worked with the programming supplier to design operator screens and define parameters for the operator interface. Others worked with the warehouse layout, defining procedures for receiving and shipping. Some helped set up the laboratory and ordered supplies. The entire CFC plant team also spent a week together in team training, learning HPWP and teambuilding principles.

"Every time the plant reaches an important goal, the employees raise the bar and establish an even tougher goal," Mr. Neff added. "One of the reasons that our CFC plant sets such high goals is that they know that we trust them to do so. Their personal goals for the plant already greatly exceed any goals that management would have established for them, and they are constantly meeting them."

Those kind of achievements deserve rewards, and as goals are met, they are celebrated, Mr. Neff said. Whether it's a company trip to the circus or another steak dinner, the HPWP philosophy renews emphasis on the team, and that is how Southeastern Mills celebrates each accomplishment.

"High performing people are a company's competitive advantage," Mr. Neff said. "And a high performance work place is only possible in an environment of high expectations; high expectations drive the results that we desire," he explained, recalling various training exercises in which groups that had higher expectations placed on them always achieved more.

Because Southeastern Mills created an environment where employees had an opportunity to succeed, the company has become more successful.

"Everything has changed," Mr. Neff said. "And the journey never ends — we try to improve every day on these skills. It is the best way to operate a business, and more importantly, it's the right thing to do."