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GE Work-Out Redux for Today’s Leader

Excellent leaders know how to execute. This posting reminds us of a tried and true approach to making sure that your organization can deliver the goods, even if it have been down-sized and restructured. Perhaps especially so.

How do you get more out of the organization that you’ve got, or from the organization that you’re downsizing into?  Combine fewer people and higher anxiety, and you’ve got a whole host of possible viruses that can give the organization a teeth-chattering case of organizational ague: internal competition for scarce resources from the top on down, overwork, unclear priorities, conflicting messages – any I have missed?     

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To help your people and your organization clear up these viruses and focus their attention and actions on executing on the right things in the right ways, consider using an old-fashioned Work-out.  Yes, I am talking about the GE Work-out that readers of a certain age will remember from 1989 when GE unleashed a radical new process to bust through its bureaucracy and quickly find ways to get unnecessary work out of a downsized organization.  Some of you may have read the book GE Work-Out  co-authored by my colleague Dave Ulrich who was involved in this pioneering effort; there is also lots of information on Work-out on the web. 

The antidote that Workout provided was the simple act of bringing together those closest to and most impacted by an important issue or opportunity, and having them go through a collective decision-making process, the results of which all parties would have to commit to act upon.   In the words of then-CEO Jack Welch: “Workout is designed to create an environment where every man and woman in the company can see and feel a connection between what he or she does all day…and winning in the marketplace.”

I was reminded of the power of Work-out last week when I met Bev Davids for the first time.  She runs an organization called The Greenwich Group out of Toronto which has adapted Workout for our current conditions.   Here’s my best attempt to recap the conversation that I had with Bev:

Kate:     I am old enough to remember the excitement about Workout back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  I also can’t help but wonder if a 20 year old process can really be useful in the Internet age.  Isn’t this your father’s management Oldsmobile?

Bev:         Workout is all about high involvement and rapid decision-making. What could be more relevant to today’s challenges?  It was relevant then, it’s relevant now and I daresay it will be relevant 20 years from now.

Kate:     If every organization knows that it needs to be more speedy and engaging, why can’t they simply address that issue head-on?  Isn’t a Workout really just a workaround – a process placed on top of the real issue? 

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Bev:       Think about your own blogs on viruses – groupthink, not invented here, and the rest. Left on their own, organizations tend not to listen very well, good ideas languish in in-boxes, innovations get raised but not acted upon. Organizations tend more toward inertia than toward taking new actions or adopting new habits that could be useful. Without a dedicated and formalized process for getting things done like a Workout , it is often hard for voices to be heard, decisions to be taken, and actions to happen.

Kate:     I get from the GE experience that Workout is great for bureaucracy busting.  But how Workout support the initiatives that so many organizations have at the center of their strategies today around, like innovation and globalization? 

Bev:       Yes, Workout was very focused on bureaucracy-busting – that was why it was invented.    It proved so effective, though, that both GE and other organizations have adapted it for other uses, from process improvement to strategy implementation – wherever the issue is of medium complexity and touches many people. It is a very useful fit for organizations that have been through downsizings because many minds and perspectives need to come together around the challenge of “how will we go forward with so many fewer people?”  This challenge requires organizations to be very innovative in how they approach their work.  They may need to conceive of it entirely differently.  They need a way for innovative ideas to come forward. 

Kate:     If this is all about hearing voices, it may also be a useful tool for organizations hoping to make the most of the diversity in the organization – the voices that are sometimes not heard.

Bev:      There is a strong link to diversity in these situations: the best solutions to the post-downsizing world will be found in the diverse wisdom and experience remaining in the organization.  A workout in this situation needs to include representatives from different levels, functions, skills, experiences, genders, thinking styles, nationalities – you name it.

Kate:     What’s a good example of Workout delivering an innovative solution?

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Bev:       Here’s a simple one, not around downsizing but around employee engagement, another “soft” issue for our times. The business issue was that new employees in this organization were having a terrible experience in their first week or so on the job.  The organization was not prepared to receive them, and the negative impression really colored their emerging opinion of and level of commitment to their new employer. So, we decided to tackle the issue of the induction process of the new employee. For that Workout, we brought together recent hires from various backgrounds, as well as HR, IT and others.  They quickly got to 12 recommendations, all of which have been implemented and had very positive impact.  One that comes to mind: that the process of approving the technology for the new hire would begin as soon as the position was approved. That meant, when the person arrived, his or her technology was all set up and ready to go on the desk. This had a HUGE effect on employee morale: they felt they had joined a very together company and had the satisfaction of being productive from Day 1. This solution could never have come from HR by itself or IT by itself.  

Kate:     Sounds simple and powerful.

Bev:       Happy employees mean happy customers. And one happy employee means many happy employees because as we all know, moods are contagious.

Kate:     So far, so good. But what can go wrong?

Bev:       Leaders who want to implement a process that promises to engage and listen to employees had better follow up on that promise. If they undertake an engagement process and then fail to listen and take action, they will have made a bad situation worse.

Please contact me at katesweetman@rbl.net with any ideas or questions.  And check out what the Financial Times has to say about our book The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By

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