Brian Swanson has spent the last twenty-seven years working in manufacturing and process improvement and has been training peers for the last ten years.
Twenty years of his career were spent in the Forest Products industry; first, manufacturing high-end furniture and cabinetry in his own business and later at Lexington Manufacturing, an industry leading wood component manufacturer serving the window and door industry.
Currently, Brian is a partner and Director of Enterprise Excellence at NACS, Inc. in Ham Lake. In addition, he is the founder and Chairman of the Board for HOPE 4 Youth, an organization serving homeless youth in the Anoka County area.
Many of us, maybe even most of the people reading this book, have considered the possibility of starting their own business at one time or another. It’s safe to assume that several readers have gone so far as to start a business of their own and a few are currently employed by organizations that they founded themselves. Even so, readers are likely to be surprised by what I am going to explain. Surprised not because it will be new or unique, in fact, I think it is nearly universally known.
I discovered this valuable information shortly after being invited to join the team at NACS, Inc. in August of 2007. My job was to contribute my skills to a unique and talented organization in order to help create a culture of continuous improvement with the clear intent of becoming the best at providing our unique manufacturing solutions to our customers. At the time, NACS, Inc. was in the business of designing and building automated equipment, and they envisioned a future that included offering a wider range of manufacturing services.
I had been involved in one of the best continuous improvement environments for 15 years at Lexington Manufacturing. I learned how to systematically guide a team through a process improvement from some of the most collaborative and supportive people a person could ever have the pleasure to work with. I had participated in teams that accomplished results that even the Toyota gurus would be proud to call their own. As a member of the Leaders Alliance peer group within the Manufacturers Alliance association, I had benchmarked at least 100 of the best manufacturing companies and learned something from each. The Leaders Alliance also gave me access to the greatest network of process improvement minds I could find and all of them were willing to offer whatever assistance they could.
Even with all of this background and support, the study of business and manufacturing is imperfect. The challenge that most of us face is boiling all of the ideas and theories down to a cohesive plan that we can apply to our company. At NACS, Inc. we determined that there were six aspects of excellence that were keys to our future, and that three of those aspects naturally created an environment for the other three to grow.
We envisioned an environment that included:
- an attitude of excellence,
- an empowered workforce and
- continuous improvement.
This environment would be built on the foundation of:
- the Voice of the Customer,
- strategic business management, and
- value-focused processes.
We started our Voice of the Customer effort in a typical but somewhat misguided fashion. We intended to clearly define value from the customer’s viewpoint by asking questions like:
- “What are the most important things that NACS provides to your organization?”
- “How can NACS improve?”
- “What does NACS do well?”
I would bring this information back to the organization and work with the team to develop strategies to better align our processes with what the customer values.
Through a series of conversations with Bill Doty, the founder of our company, I began to realize something that I had never considered before. Bill helped me understand the revolutionary insight. In essence, what he communicated to me was that companies are rarely started to serve the customer.
Think about it, do entrepreneurs really start out on their own and take risks involved in starting a business because they so desperately want to serve the needs of the customer? Businesses are started because people are looking for the opportunity to build something that endures, to have some control of their destiny, to create a better working environment, to be personally fulfilled; to (you fill in the blank). The truth is that the list of reasons is nearly endless and rarely includes a burning desire to serve the customer.
It’s ironic that we focus so intently on the customer when we define value while neglecting the fundamental reasons that companies are started. In addition, we are often frustrated and confused when we struggle to gain buy-in and support for our strategies when we bring Voice of the Customer results back to the organization.
How much better would the results be if we first took the time to learn all we can about the needs, desires, and dreams of the people that show up each day to make our companies work? How much better would our results be if we kept the focus on what really matters to our staff?
We surveyed and interviewed all of the staff in the company and asked them what was important to them, how their work brought meaning, and how they believed the organization fit into the marketplace. In addition, we asked questions about their insights and opinions related to our customers and competition. The answers to these questions provided invaluable information that helped us clarify how our employees define value.
Valuable insights were uncovered. For example, we found out that a few of our employees fish regularly with some of our key customers. Candid feedback from time sitting in a fishing boat became part of our Voice of the Customer data.
With input from an outside advisor and the information that we gathered from our staff, we drafted questions for our external customers. Preparations were made based on the themes we heard from our staff combined with some of the questions we originally planned. Each customer interview was considered independently. We drafted questions carefully to both define value from each customer’s viewpoint and to provide better context for the information that we gathered internally.
We arranged meetings with individuals at each of our key customers. Two or three of us attended each interview. One person asked the prepared questions, one listened for opportunities for clarifying questions and a third, if available, took diligent notes. If only two of us were available for an interview, the note taker also listened for opportunities to clarify or dig deeper.
As the interviews progressed, each thought that was captured by was recorded on a Post-it note and put on a wall. Once all of the interviews were complete and all of the information was posted on the wall, we asked every employee to find at least an hour in their schedule to spend in sorting the Post-its into affinity groups on the wall. If someone had placed a note in one group, and another person wanted to move it to another group, we asked them to note where it was being moved from. This provided a history.
We began to link customer comments to information gathered internally. We made a point of illustrating meaningful links to each employee. We gained alignment and buy-in because we were able to illustrate how our external customer’s thoughts and viewpoints supported and aligned with theirs.
In summary, the process we used:
- Survey all internal staff
- Ask staff some questions that you really don’t expect them to have answers for
- Follow up with staff as necessary to clarify anything that in not clear
- Develop questions for customers based on themes from the internal surveys
- Ask actionable questions
- Ask questions that will provide direction on improvements
- Interview customers in teams and keep detailed notes about every comment
- Record every comment (internal and external) on a post-it note.
- Have all staff help sort the comments into affinity groups
- Identify themes, trends, actions, and strategies from the groupings
- Feed results back to staff and customers to confirm results and build momentum
- Establish clear strategy and empower staff to achieve results
- Follow up to confirm alignment
The output has defined our company strategy for the past eight years!
More of Brian’s story will be found in the Manufacturers Alliance ebook later this year.
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