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Walk a Mile in My Shadow

Oregon-based furniture company bridges the communication gap between disparate departments that seldom interact or collaborate.

Who?

Cathy Filgas, cofounder and vice president of marketing and sales for Anthro Technology Furniture, an Oregon-based manufacturer and e-tailer of custom-built office furniture.

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What’s Your Problem?

“Shortly after we founded Anthro 16 years ago, this rather obnoxious warehouse employee came to my desk and complained about the customer-service team. He had no idea what customer-service reps did all day, so he assumed they chatted on the phone and snacked on bonbons while he worked his heinie off. His comments hinted at a larger swell of animosity within the company — an us-versus-them mentality. As we began to grow from 20 to 100 people, I could see that battle intensifying.”

Background

Half of Anthro’s employees operate forklifts and lasers on the late shift, and the other half pound on dial pads and keyboards from 9 to 5. In the early days at Anthro, employees from disparate departments — such as sales and shipping — were separated by warehouse walls, by deadlines, and by common misconceptions. Interdepartmental communication fell between the cracks. Filgas recognized this communication breakdown and predicted harmful consequences for employee training and retention, management troubleshooting, and leadership decision making.

“When you’ve got to get it done and shipped in 24 hours, you need to get everyone on board and working as a team,” Filgas says. “In order for your employees to take those necessary extra steps, you must create an environment where people will say, ‘For Paula, I’ll do that.'”

What’s Your Solution?

Anthro’s Shadow Program designates one employee each week to observe and develop a relationship with a fellow employee in an unfamiliar department. The program assigns members of the manufacturing department to join the accounting team for a day, allows warehouse workers to sample marketing, and forces middle managers to recognize good ideas and winning strategies beyond their jurisdiction. “When you’re participating in the Shadow Program, you can’t report to your desk, check your email, or answer voice mail for the entire day,” Filgas says. “You are technically out of the office doing a job that everyone on your team recognizes as important and worthwhile.”

Since its inception nearly 15 years ago, the Shadow Program has produced four distinct benefits for Anthro. First, it boosts internal relations by bolstering empathy and cooperation among departments. Filgas says she assigns more shadow participants to the planning and scheduling department than to any other because she believes it is the most intense, yet least appreciated, group at Anthro. In a company that promises next-day shipment on intricate, personalized furniture orders, the planning and scheduling department organizes and orchestrates the inventory, the assembly teams, and the transportation component with finesse and speed. It also bosses a lot of people around, which is why Filgas says all employees must understand why and how they can work together to smooth the process.

“You simply can not spend an entire day with a person, eat lunch with them, and walk away with a sense of animosity,” Filgas says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, shadowers say ‘I would never want that person’s job because it’s much too hard.’ From a management perspective, that’s exactly what you want your employees to say.”

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Similarly, the Shadow Program also exposes company leaders to a variety of thought processes and perspectives so they can make informed decisions. “When my partner begins taking positions on issues I know he doesn’t know enough about, I make him go shadow the department that will be affected,” Filgas says. “It’s an invaluable tool for leaders.”

Third, the Shadow Program allows curious, restless employees to investigate new positions within Anthro. Filgas tells the story of one warehouse worker who wanted desperately to become a designer. Filgas asked the woman to shadow a member of the design team before petitioning for a transfer and enrolling in the appropriate training courses. “Now she’s a flight attendant,” Filgas says with a laugh. “The Shadow Program either kills the desire to switch departments or it reinforces an existing aspiration.”

For example, several members of Anthro’s shipping department have moved through company ranks by shadowing and then training to become laser operators. A laser operator earns more money and needs more technical skills than a shipper, so after an employee completes a shadow and petitions for a transfer, Anthro enrolls him or her in the appropriate courses. In fact, Anthro requires and subsidizes 30 hours of training for each employee each year. That training may take place at a community college, in an online classroom, or during Anthro’s Technical Knockout Day — one afternoon every other month when the company brings in instructors to teach Microsoft Word, laser-cutting techniques, methods for reducing stress, and much more.

Finally, the Shadow Program forces employees to articulate and explain their motivations, procedures, and thought processes. This has a residual effect on new-employee orientation because people throughout the organization become accustomed to training and communicating with outsiders. This process also forces employees to challenge the assumptions and traditions that sometimes dictate their work, Filgas says.

“When I shadowed the shipping department a few years ago, I was blown away by the redundant paperwork I saw,” she says. “I asked, ‘Why do you spend two hours every morning filling out these papers? I don’t understand.’ Neither did the person I was shadowing, since we could generate many of those records automatically. We ended up doing away with much of the redundancy and saving vast amounts of time and money. One day out of my schedule was well worth it in the long run.”

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