Smart Work: Few Organizations Do It

I have struggled with the issue of effective and efficient work for over 40 years. The first decade of my career as an Industrial Engineer was dedicated to minimizing the number of steps of work and reducing the amount of time each step took to execute. We had a term in our industry for employees—“hands.” That’s all they needed to bring to work because we (the leadership) were doing the thinking and improving.

For the following two decades, I was leading the new “Quality” initiatives. What a change! The challenge now was to engage the hearts and minds of the “hands.” There was energy, buzz, excitement. . . . But, we could not sustain it.

Taylorism and Quality Initiatives Have Failed

Just about every organization I visit has attempted to measure work scientifically as Fredrick Taylor prescribed, and they’ve attempted to engage the workforce to make improvements. Why have so many organizations tried and so many failed? Again, I was part of the problem trying to execute intelligent ideas in a non-intelligent way.

I worked for Milliken & Company for over 40 years. Milliken is a privately held company with roots dating back to 1865 in the textile industry. A couple of decades ago, Milliken & Company found itself under severe threat from low-cost, off-shore competition. Although Milliken dedicated more to R&D than any other company in the textile industry, it had to address its fundamental cost structure for its long-term survival. In the early 80s Milliken embarked on a quality journey like many companies. I was fortunate to lead it. Milliken was recognized with the National Quality Award in 1989, but it was not enough: The entire industry was under siege.

We had applied the discipline of scientific management to work. We sought out and benchmarked the best manufacturing processes around the world. We hired the best consultants. We were seeing improvements, but we were not maintaining the gains. And frankly, it was just not enough to survive, much less thrive, in a very competitive environment.

The Three Spheres of Operational Influence

While there are many spheres to improve operational effectiveness, after years of doing and observing, I have concluded there are only three main ones—“main” because if you get any of these wrong, nothing else matters. Simply, they are Leadership, Associates, and Processes. Not rocket science, but why do so many organizations get them wrong? Great question! My answer is best given pictorially:

Most organizations have all the pieces, but somewhere there is a disconnect. The three spheres are regarded as silos—each independent of the other. This was true for Milliken as it is for most companies regardless of size. My personal history has been in engineering and the detailed processes of quality improvement. The principles are sound. They should work. Most of the time they fail, not because of they are bad methods, but because one or all of the spheres are preventing the others from succeeding. I feel strongly that most of reasons for failing to improve is due to one of the following:

  • Leaders are not leading. One thing I have learned over four decades is that leaders don’t want to hear they are the problem. But guess what, they are . . . a lot! Their job is to give direction about where the organization is going and to give hope that the organization’s plan will succeed. To truly optimize the organization’s capacity to improve, we must engage the hearts and minds of every associate, not just a few at the top. This calls for a new way of leading.
  • Associates are not engaged. I believe that everyone comes to work for more than a paycheck. They want to be involved; they want their ideas heard and implemented, and they want to be thanked. Pretty simple. Milliken sent a terrible message to its employees by calling them “hands.” Just bring them to work and don’t think. Milliken was fortunate because it changed. For many organizations, engagement of the workforce is something nice to have, but the reality is that it is an absolute necessity for optimum improvement.
  • The “work” is not robust. At the floor level, most organizations try to make work efficient. This can be good and bad. Work needs to be effective. To do so, dynamic tension needs to be present between the work that is standardized and the improvements to be made. Toyota was and is a master of doing this. So, for work to be efficient and effective it has to be meaningful. Every associate must become a problem solver. This calls for a new way of working.

The Wake-Up Call

There is nothing like your industry’s being under siege to focus your attention. That’s what Milliken experienced in the early 80s as the textile industry eroded. Milliken adopted strategies of quality for the short term and innovation for the long term. Early attempts at quality were about a few tools that everyone could use. We had some success, but it was not enough and we could not sustain it. The bigger issue was that we did not understand why. We were living the Three Spheres in isolated silos.

In the mid-90s I led several study missions to Japan. We saw the Three Spheres, but not like we were practicing them. Leaders were actively aligning the organization while giving everyone the education and skills to make improvements. Associates were actively engaged in the work and improving the work and the product. A holistic production system gave them context on how the work and processes were to be executed.

The concept of a holistic system to run operations was new. We hired Japanese consultants to assist Milliken in creating our production or performance system. It took nine years to implement these at Milliken. Engaging everyone at every level to become problem-solvers had never been done before at Milliken. Education of everyone was required to push to knowledge and decision-making to the lowest possible point in the organization. We were taught to think in terms of “perfection” and to measure ourselves against this new goal.


We expected to see results, and we did. We expected to realize the results and then move on after two to three years like any initiative. What we experienced were breakthrough, not incremental, results. Also, we have seen those results deliver now for over two decades. We believe Milliken is here today because it developed a robust system, engaged every associate (no longer “hands”) in its deployment, and leadership finally got it.

Everyone wants the impact. The key lesson is that to achieve the optimum impact, leadership must first engage and mobilize the workforce. This is best done by developing a holistic system by which the “work” can be done and improved.

Today’s Challenge

Today most organizations have their own “system”—their own house and pillars—but continue to struggle with obtaining and maintaining the gains. Why? Fundamentally, it goes back to the Three Spheres operating as silos. Until we realize that we must lead differently by engaging everyone and working differently, nothing will change. We have taken the tools, but have yet to embrace the true spirit and intent that will make all the difference.

World-class organizations understood this decades ago.

Craig Long spent the last 40 years with Milliken & Company in many different roles. For over 20 years he was VP of Quality. More recently, Craig started the consultancy Performance Solutions by Milliken, now operating in 400 operations in 23 countries.

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