On October 15th, I was presented the Milliken Medal of Quality by South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley on behalf of the South Carolina Quality Forum. In light of the new year, a summary of my comments about Roger Milliken are below.

The Milliken Medal of Quality: Reflections on a Leadership Legacy

From our earliest years, accolades can motivate us. Whether it’s a little league trophy or straight A’s on a report card, recognition can fuel us to achieve more, to work harder. However, not all awards are created equal, and the ones hardest to achieve often mean the most to us. The Milliken Medal of Quality Award from South Carolina Quality Forum would certainly fit that category.

Being named as the 2014 recipient last week was an honor for me and a truly humbling experience. It led me to think about everything the award represents. I think every winner since Roger Milliken has felt “unworthy” for such a recognition, as I am today. In my 40-year career with Milliken, I have had the distinct privilege of working very closed with Roger Milliken. His passion and energy will be forever unmatched.

Roger Milliken was fiercely protective about the use of his name. You won’t find it plastered all over stadiums, hospitals, or high rises. The SC Quality Forum must feel honored that he respected this organization enough to grant it permission. There is only one instance I am aware of his name being used, and that is on the Milliken Science Building at Wofford College in Spartanburg.

Mr. Milliken served as a Trustee of Wofford for 55 years. In 2001, the college started construction on a new science building. During the planning of this building, Mr. Milliken missed one Board of Trustees meeting. He found out, much to his dismay, it was during this meeting that the Board had voted to call new facility “The Milliken Science Building.” When Mr. Milliken asked that his name not be used on the building, the Chairman of the Board explained, “Mr. Milliken we did not name the building after you – we named it after your parents!”

Roger Milliken held strong beliefs about how to run a quality-focused organization, yet at the same time was dedicated to continuous learning. To him there was no saturation point when it came to new ideas and improving. He sought out knowledge everywhere. For example, when he learned that he would be receiving the Medal of Quality Award in 1997, he arrived early for the conference, sat in most of the morning workshops taking notes, and looked more like a new manager than a veteran industry leader.

His behavior was different enough to get a reporter from the State newspaper curious. When asked why he did this, Mr. Milliken replied simply, “There is no monopoly on ideas.” I believe this is still true today.

Roger Milliken also believed, “Never aim to be the biggest. Aim to be the best.” Why? Because when you strive to be the best, the bigger things to take care of themselves. What does it take to be the best? Not big thinking, but detailed thinking.

He once told me, “Everyone thinks the ‘devil’ is in the details. It is just the opposite.” His belief was that in those details were where you would find the “light,” the clarity and discovery that can only come by examining an opportunity closely and from all angles. When you immerse yourself in the details of a problem, you find yourself committed to becoming part of the answer.

Our Quality Journey at Milliken & Company started with Roger Milliken realizing he couldn’t do it alone. This is a startling admission for any company president or CEO who is used to doing it alone and being successful at it. In order to journey forward, we at Milliken had to engage not just the hands, but the hearts and minds of every single employee in the company. How do you do this, though, in a culture where hourly associates weren’t even acknowledged as whole persons but were literally called “hands?

Shortly thereafter, in a major corporate meeting, Roger Milliken asked to stop the meeting to make an announcement. He took a chair onto the stage, stood on it, and raised his right hand, and said:

“I will Listen.

I will not shoot the Messenger.

Management is the Problem.”

At this meeting, we had with us the famous business author, Tom Peters, who had encouraged Mr. Milliken to commit to changing the company culture and his personal management style in a symbolic way that would be remembered for years. And he did. Roger Milliken not only told the room of managers that they needed to change, but he had to change, as well.

He always believed good jobs create a strong middle class and a strong middle class is the foundation of our country. He fought not only to protect jobs in Milliken & Company, but also to make those jobs and our associates better. Everyone in the organization evolved from simple hands into valued problem solvers.

What we discovered at Milliken, and also in other organizations we work with, is people want more than a paycheck. They want to be involved, they want to be heard, they want their ideas implemented, and they want to be thanked and recognized in a timely and sincere way.

It’s really that simple. It’s just hard to do.

At Milliken, we also believe people need the context of a well thought out system on how to do their work in order to free up the resources to be proactive problem solvers.

Taiichi Ohno, founder the Toyota Production System said, “It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People do not go to Toyota to ‘work.’ They go there to ‘think.’”

We believe the same is true at Milliken and in other organizations that value and commit to excellence.

Tom Peters once said, “Excellence is not an aspiration. Excellence is the next five minutes.” One of Roger Milliken’s favorite sayings was, “The largest room in the world is the room for improvement.” My personal favorite is, “Operations don’t fail, organizations do.”

In 2002, The American Society for Quality bestowed on Mr. Milliken its highest individual award, The Juran Medal of Quality. I was the Vice President of Quality at that time, and he asked me to go with him as he accepted the award in front of 3,000 people in Kansas City.

True to form, Mr. Milliken worked the room nonstop, talking to as many people as he could. I think he learned something from just about everyone there on what they were doing in pursuit of quality. After the ceremony, we rode around Kansas City studying their trees, which was a lifelong hobby of his.

When we returned to Spartanburg, he was getting out of my car with his new award and said to me, “Craig, you know I did not go to Kansas City to win an award. I went to learn something new.”

So, for me and all award winners before me, we need to be mindful of the great opportunity the South Carolina Quality Forum has given us, to make ourselves better, our organizations better and the State of South Carolina.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn by Craig Long. Craig Long has spent his 40-year career with Milliken & Company in a variety of executive leadership roles. In 2007, Craig helped launch the Performance Solutions by Milliken business to assist other organizations with the same challenges that Milliken has overcome. Craig’s experience includes business management, quality, continuous improvement, corporate education, industrial engineering, product development, and complexity reduction. For the past two decades Craig has led successful MPS implementations within Milliken and with 350 client operations in 23 countries to date. To learn more, visit www.performancesolutionsbymilliken.com.

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