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Find out more about the services that OA provides to increase effective employee participation.

See a list of other articles about employee involvement and participation.


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Article: The ESOP 'WorkOut'

By Christopher Mackin, Ownership Associates
Published in the February 2005 issue of the ESOP Report by the ESOP Association.

What if you could invest your training dollars in a way that could ignite both performance change and culture change--at the same time? If there ever was a worthwhile "two-fer" for your training budget, that would be it. ESOP settings, where employee owners generally hold heightened expectations about getting involved in the future success of "their" companies, would seem to be an ideal place to attempt to marry performance and cultural change. But how to put these two together?

Performance change initiatives are sober. They typically involve the slow and deliberate acquisition of skills. Examples might include learning a new software program or perhaps on a system-wide level introducing statistical process control or total quality management. These initiatives are about making work smarter. If they work, the results are tangible and measurable. Output increases per unit of input.

Culture change initiatives are enthusiastic. They typically focus on transformations in attitudes and relationships and on the creation of an environment of openness, creativity and trust. Bureaucracy is the obvious enemy of culture change as is hierarchy for hierarchy sake. Culture change initiatives share an interest with performance change initiatives in showing tangible results but their efforts are more difficult to measure. How do you measure increased trust?

There may well have been a corporation other than General Electric (GE) or a corporate leader other than Jack Welch who first figured out how to mix this unlikely combination. But in our era at least, it is difficult to dispute that it was GE and Jack Welch who brought this possibility to our attention during the late 1980's. The name that GE gives to their efforts is called "WorkOut." There are lessons that the WorkOut phenomenon have to teach to the ESOP community.

A consulting group that has assisted GE with WorkOut iniatiatives, Robert H. Schaffer & Associates, defines WorkOut as "a process for bringing together a large group of people to pursue urgent and challenging business goals."

Practically speaking there are three elements to the WorkOut process.

  • The first element is a design phase where senior management identifies a set of stubborn business and operational problems deserving of serious work.
  • The second element consists of two to three day work sessions where large groups of employees meet (20-200) to hear about these problems. After being briefed on these problems and their significance, the large group then breaks down into task forces that make use of process analysis tools and ordinary common sense to attack the roots of these problems. After sufficient small group work, the full group reconvenes to share their results. On the closing afternoon proposals are shared in a large "Town Meeting" format. Senior management agrees ahead of time to immediately and publicly render one of three judgments about the task force work that is presented. Those judgments are yes, no or needs more study.
  • The third element is the implementation phase where task forces are given 4-12 weeks to implement their approved plans followed by a second Town Meeting evaluation and reflection on what has been learned.

In the midst of it, a WorkOut process can feel like you have welcomed an only somewhat controlled hurricane into your organization. It involves a significant investment of time and effort. It can feel chaotic. But if the appropriate pre-work has been done during the design phase, chaos will generate a bountiful harvest.

The genius of WorkOut is three-fold.

  • First, it is time limited. While the cultural and substantive performance rewards can be substantial, there is only so much hurricane time an organization can endure. Participants coming into a WorkOut experience know that this is a "special time" where certain conventions are suspended in favor of creativity and problem solving. If appropriately prepared, they will also know when it is time to return to their jobs to execute their ideas.
  • Second, it convincingly reinforces a long established truth of students of organizational change--that there are vast resources of knowledge among the ordinary folks, among the rank and file, that can help solve problems. With appropriate preparatory design work and ongoing technical assistance, employees can be serious architects of significant organizational change.
  • The third source of genius of WorkOut however is more purely cultural. It consists of an injection of a certain kind of "fresh air" into the environment of an organization. During face to face Town Meeting sessions, workers and managers learn that it is possible for the best ideas, for merit, to win out over turf and organizational politics. The psychological rewards that accompany that kind of experience are difficult to measure. They can literally lift an organizational culture out of dormancy and into a state of belief in the future.

ESOP companies should be prime candidates for WorkOut-like interventions. One of the persistent challenges of the ESOP community is to capture the common spirit of employee ownership. To achieve that spirit involves lifting our individual heads from our individual ESOP account statements to realize what can be accomplished through the power of the group, the power of the company as a whole.

ESOP companies such as Reflexite Corporation of Avon, CT have made productive use of large group "Town Meeting" settings to address complex problems such as health insurance policy options. The Carris Corporation of Rutland, VT uses their own large group participation mechanism, what they call their Employees Committee of roughly 50 participants (out of a total of 400), to wrestle with complex, company-wide policy issues.

Other ESOP companies have begun to experiment with annual shareholder meetings as a setting to recognize and make use of the power of the group. It should be possible to combine the reporting function of an annual shareholders meeting with the participatory experience of a WorkOut effort. Part One--perhaps Day One or the morning of a full day could focus on looking back at what has transpired in the past year. Part Two--perhaps Day Two or the afternoon of a full day--could share with the company at large the final stage findings of a WorkOut process. With all the "big wigs" sitting together among the community of employee owners, new face to face commitments can be forged for the year ahead.

What both Parts endeavor to do in a public setting is to make clear something that is revolutionary but that is almost always taken for granted--the identity of the new ownership group. It is no longer just the family owner or the anonymous outside shareholders. Look to your right. Look to your left. Ownership is actually in the room. So is the power to make things better.

Christopher Mackin is the founder and President of Ownership Associates, Inc. of Cambridge, MA, one of the leading assessment, training and organizational culture consultants to the ESOP community.

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