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Competitive success: supporting operational level participation.

Competitive Success: Supporting Operational Level Participation

Employee participation is a major element in making organizational strategies work, although many of the recommendations for success in these areas suggest more of a downward flow of ideas. This is not to say that there has not been a lot of lip service given to the value of employee suggestions and advice. However, gradually we are beginning recognize the importance of ideas originating at the operational level itself.

Whether caused by different assessments or actual matters of fact, many organizational leaders are unquestionably recognizing the true underlying value of worker participation. In fact, the celebrated turnaround of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company has been directly attributed to "increased worker participation and improved quality control." During 1987, the non-supervisory employees at the Maytag Co. reportedly submitted 6,347 suggestions - an average of three per worker. More than 2,700 of the suggestion were actually implemented, with awards for these ranging up to $7,500 and totaling over $200,000. Obviously, a suggestion award program such as the one at Maytag is extremely valuable, but it is just one method for participation.

The appropriate method and degree of employee participation vary with the situation. Thus, we see different limits, guideline, and avenues for participation depending on the employee's position in the organization and the issue at hand.

The avenues for employee participation cover a multitude of activities. They may include submitting written suggestions, verbally expressing ideas, becoming involved in various organizational program at and away from the job, or developing operations proposals. Our main interest here is on the last topic - developing operational proposals. When we consider the broad spectrum of operational proposals, we see that some can be evaluated and decided upon quickly and informally. Conversely, other imply a significant impact on the business strategy. Many of these proposals necessarily stem from the various operating units within such functional areas as marketing, engineering, production, and finance. Strategic success depends not only on effective performance at the operating levels, but also on the proposals generated at these levels.

At the higher business level, strategic decisions are made regarding "what to do" and the basic strategic approach to use. These decisions must then be translated into specific action plans and operational activities. According to Burnell Roberts, CEO of the Mead Corporation: "It is up to the divisions to come in with operational proposals that will make the strategy work. . .and that's what we're paying them for." Some operational proposal are developed in response to specific regulatory or higher-level directives. Meanwhile, unsolicited proposals often provide an important participatory approach for achieving continuous improvement and competitive positioning.

A fundamental requirement when assessing any proposal is to decide whether the proposal suggests a meaningful relationship to the business strategy and if it is compatible with situational factors. Managers in all areas can play a significant role in creating an environment or culture that fosters participation and initiation of the ideas for these "meaningful" proposals.

However, once an idea is formulated, an essential succeeding phase is the development of a more complete proposal to be used in seeking approval and implementation. In this phase, managers can make a major contribution if they understand the support activities needed for developing meaningful proposals and know how to provide assistance.

One way to view the manager's support activities for proposals is to separate the activities into these three role categories:

* Information.

* Facilitation.

* Assessment.

The objective for all the activities within these categories is to successfully develop proposals at the operating unit level which help advance the business strategy. As these activities are discussed, the support role of the manager should not be regarded as just a one-time, independent happening. How the events surrounding any particular proposal unfold sets the scene and establishes some predispositions for future proposals. Most organizations are seeking a continuous stream of proposals. This stream can be jeopardized if the development if proposal is not handled properly.

Managers are linchpins between their units and other parts of the organization. The nature of this connecting position affects all three support role categories to some degree, but it significantly affects the information role. Managerial assistance in the information category specifically involves interpreting and relating outside information to the group's activities. The information role category can be subdivided as into:

* Communicate the strategic direction.

* Point out general situation factors.

* Call attention to relevant policies.

* Inform about temporal issues.

The first step in providing assistance is to fully understand and communicate the strategic direction of the organization to the people in the manager's unit. This involves more than just reiterating the organization's grand strategic plan. It means operationalizing that strategy and clearly illustrating the relevancy of the unit's activities to successful strategic implementation and goal achievement. Let us assume, for instance, that the organization's goal is to become a world-class manufacturer of a certain item. This goal then needs to be translated down to the level of the unit in meaningful terms, such as error rates, costs, and weekly schedule adjustments. This information in turn stimulates the generation of strategy-related ideas from the people in the unit.

Managers should point out general situational factors that seem pertinent. The unit certainly needs to know what related plans and programs are underway within the company. However, the knowledge component must go beyond the internal organization. People should be aware of what unfilled customer need exist. The need to know where their product is service is in its life cycle (growth maturity, or decline) and what moves their competitors are contemplating. Situational awareness includes, among other things, an appreciation for trends in new technology, changes in market approaches, and major movements in customer bases. The time horizon is another important element.

John Darragh, CEO of Standard Register, suggest that people must understand "the issues that face the company not only in the current period, but in long term."

The unit manager should call attention to relevant policies that might affect the development of a proposal. Organizational policies run the gamut from those that are barely articulated to those that are written in detail. Some of these policies stem from legal or external regulatory requirements, and others may emanate from a certain experience, an ethical view, or a basic fundamental company philosophy. Since policies establish limits or reflect certain preferences, they frequently restrict current creativity and may even be totally outdated. Although certain policies may be criticized for various reasons, people in the unit to be aware of the existence of relevant policies and realize the risk involved if they ignore them. Most policies, regardless of how well they are defined, require some degree of interpretation at the unit level. Individual value system and organizational culture are influential during this interpretation process, and likewise throughout the entire development of a proposal.

Items in the temporal issues are reflect the transient internal and external environmental conditions. Thus, to inform about temporal issues is to give people a realistic setting for developing the proposal. Temporal issues are basically short-term concerns as opposed to the general situational factors discussed earlier, which have much longer time spans. For instance, a six month hiring freeze, a curtailment of quarterly discretionary spending, a high monthly finished-goods inventory, a divisional reorganization plan, or perhaps a temporary plant closing are on the surface all examples of temporal issues. Frequently, temporal issues turn into long-term situational factors. On the other hand, temporal issues are often symptoms of other underlying conditions. For this assessment the manager's interpretation and guidance are helpful to the unit.

Relaying external information to people in the unit is only one aspect of a manager's job. Another major function is to assist subordinates in performing their work. Typical examples of support include providing various resources, training, facilities, guidance, motivation, and feedback. A manager can take on a much broader role and be a facilitator for the development of operational proposals. Several critical aspects of this role are:

* Create the proper environment.

* Assemble the right team.

* Provide resources.

* Help without stifling.

* Gain outside assistance.

Some environments are more conductive to the development of new ideas. Under certain conditions, managers can help create the proper environment for the development of meaningful operational proposals. Sometimes it is just a matter

of encouragement or merely a request. Moreover, the manager needs to generate the general climate where ideas of almost any type can at least expressed. Many of the guidelines for effective brainstorming sessions seem to have merit in this instance. Some of those guidelines involve allowing "free-wheeling" thinking, withholding early judgment, and building on the thoughts of others. Promoting risk-taking, welcoming initiative, and a general receptivity to new ideas foster an environment for the development of new operational proposals.

It is one thing to have a good idea, but it is another matter to move that concept forward into a successful operational proposal. Often the development phase is beyond the capabilities of the person who had the idea. Therefore, the manager needs to assemble the right team of people to assist in this process. Assigning certain people to the team can have multiple benefits beyond just preparation of the proposal. Participation from the team can improve cohesion between the team members, and it can provide a growth experience for some people. This early involvement can also ease criticism and facilitate the possible implementation of the proposal later on. Team assignment decisions often require perceptive judgment and insightful interpersonal awareness in order to capitalize on the various opportunities.

As mentioned earlier, a primary management responsibility is to secure power resource support for people to do their jobs. When developing proposals, managers again have a similar requirement to provide resources. On occasion, resource support is overlooked or neglected with the expectation that the current level of resources will accommodate the additional development demands. While this might be and adequate solution in some cases, an appropriate increase in the resources area may be justifiable and quite beneficial. For instance, the extra resources might permit more complete data collection and analysis, or even a small pilot study. The possibility for activities like these could greatly improve a proposal's chances for success. Not only can additional resources or some compensation affect the ability and capability of those engaged in developing the proposal, but it can also enhance commitment to developing a quality and timely proposal.

Probably one of the bigger challenges managers face is to provide continuing help without stifling subordinate's creativity and the sense of satisfaction that comes from exercising their own initiative. Although circumstances fluctuate, managers can influence the development efforts in a very positive (or negative) way. As events occur, an underlying premise should be that the people developing the proposal and the organization can both benefit as a result of the effort.

Managers can work toward these mutually satisfying ends in some very direct ways. An early step is to ensure that the objectives of the proposal are appropriate. Demonstrating interest in the development process, participating in overcoming unexpected problems, and assisting with procedural or format issues are other opportunities. Another important managerial activity is to pass on to the initiators any pertinent corporate history and to ensure that past submissions are properly reviewed. Terry Carder, CEO of the Reynolds and Reynolds Company, in commenting on this review of past proposals, shows that you can often learn as much from the unsuccessful proposals as you can from those that were approved. He suggests: "(That you) review the ones that you made, especially ones that you really like that didn't make it" and then do some what-if analyses to help guide the development of future proposals.

The last topic in the facilitation role category pertains to the activities of a manager to gain outside assistance. Relative to the people in a unit, the unit manager is normally in a better position to engage in contacts with managers at the same or higher level in the organization. Thus, a manager can do a number of things outside the unit to facilitate the proposal and to improve its chances for approval.

As a starting point, the manager can lay the groundwork for the proposal, obtain the initial reactions of others, and perhaps even gain some commitment and resource support from other parts of the organization. Proposals can easily end up being based on very narrow viewpoints and without adequate consideration of the technical issues. A wise manager will seek out good organizational and technical expertise early in a proposal's conceptual state. Burnell Robert as Mead strongly recommends that people "get good technical advice and good engineering advice" and be cautious about being a leader in new technology. He runs into situations all the time where the new technology "just doesn't work."

Managers need to disseminate information and facilitate job performance. Additionally, they must evaluate, critique, and take corrective actions on issues within their area of responsibility. These judgmental requirements pertain equally to operational proposals. As proposals move upward through the hierarchical system, the approving individual at each successive organizational level bears certain verification responsibilities. Verifying an operational proposal basically entails evaluating the adequacy or validity of the proposal and assessing its compatibility with other situational factors. Several key areas in the assessment role category for operational proposals are:

* Perform critical reviews:

* Ensure adequate coordination.

* Consider alternative approaches.

* Give realistic encouragement.

* Select the right time.

One of the primary functions of a manager is to perform critical reviews. When the analysis is finished, the proposal should stand up to questions similar to those posed by G.P. Williamson, president of NCR Corporation "(Has this person) really thought through the whole thing? Is it obvious to you that he's got all the pieces well thought out?" This involves examining all the controversial issues and disadvantages as well as the positive features. Certainly risks, payoffs, costs, and assumptions are some items that enter the analysis. The proposal should show some contribution or linkage to the strategic direction of the company. Roberts of the Mead Corporation put if this way: "We are not going to have someone coming in with a special little project if it doesn't fit in the scheme somewhere. We do not fund projects. We fund strategy."

Low cost and low impact proposals may not be required to demonstrate specific impact on the business strategy. While we can understand these types of situations, we can also appreciate the comment by Williamson of NCR when he said "but ones that do (show linkage) sure get approved fast" and generate far fewer questions.

Under the facilitation role category were comments about gaining outside assistance at an early stage in the development of a proposal. At this point the manager should make sure adequate coordination is obtained on the advanced version of the proposal before it is sent forward from the unit. Lack of coordination and myopic thinking are two very important deterrents when trying to get proposals approved. In fact, functional thinking is one of the surest ways to get a proposal rejected. Darragh at Standard Register said he has rejected many operational plans because the plan "didn't meet the needs of the corporation, but rather met the need of the function that wrote the plan."

Approval of a proposal is based not only on content, but to some degree on how it is presented. A potentially valid proposal can be overlooked because of poor presentation. Things can go too far the other way and people may lose sight of the content because of the impressive style of presentation. Content is the primary factor, but it needs to be balanced by giving reasonable attention to the presentation issue.

Goals can be achieved in numerous ways. Managers must be alert to consider alternative approaches in order to obtain full coordination and funding support. Perhaps an operational proposal will need to be divided into smaller parts and phased in over a longer period of time. It's possible that the objectives of the proposal or even its methodology may require some alteration.

The development of a proposal does not typically progress efficiently or smoothly. Delays, so called blind alleys, and falling back one or two steps are common occurrences when completing various phases of a proposal. To maintain motivation, managers need to give realistic encouragement when appropriate. With the proper type of encouragement, developers of the proposal may increase their determination to overcome problems and even incorporate suggested changes more willingly.

Timing is a critical strategic and tactical dimension. The ability to select the right time for submission of a proposal strongly influences the likelihood of acceptance. Changing needs and environmental factors affect the receptivity to particular types of proposals. A proposal our of alignment with situational elements or out of cycle with the budgeting process may face resistance. The speed at which proposals are presented is another issue to consider. Proposals suggesting a revolutionary change may require a gradual approval process to gain full acceptance. In addition to speed and timing, we sometimes run into a situation where the basic concepts has merit but a few issues cannot be resolved. As Carder of Reynolds and Reynolds said: "Solidify as many things as you can, absolutely. But don't let the negative one or two be the end of the idea."

Many organizations encourage more of a "top-down, bottom-up" approach to management. To leadership provides broad strategic direction and then acts to evaluate proposed approaches. Individuals at the lower or bottom level are the ones who develop and send forth the implementation approaches. We are realizing, however, that in many cases we are not going far enough down in the organization. As Terry Carder commented, the people on the "proverbial firing line are seeing things happen day to day, and often view the situation differently." Therefore, management needs to promote an environment where those ideas flow up through the system.

Maintaining long-term competitive success will require full utilization of an organization's resources. The primary source is people. More than relying on the mere expectation of compliance from people, organizations need to tap the real mental and creative power of their people. At a recent seminar, I recall one soft-spoken woman who was employed on a manufacturing assembly line. She said she had worked for twenty-eight years with her hands. Then she pointed to her head and said. "I can do more."

Managers can work to unleash the mental energies of their people and stimulate their participation in developing meaningful operational level proposals. The manager's support activities in this process fall into the broad role categories of information, facilitation, and assessment.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
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Author:Lee, David R.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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Next Article:Strategic thinking for the future.

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