Enhancing Profitability Through Business Process Excellence

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The Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ Story

The Vice-President of Operations stood up in front of 60 employees, more than 10% of the entire workforce, and announced with pride …

“We have achieved our stretch target goal. We have met “the 25 cent challenge” – to reduce the cost of production per pound by 25 cents through process excellence. We have tried to reduce the cost of production for 10 years. This is the first year we have achieved it. And we got there by involving all of you. We are where we wanted to be!”

The meeting where this presentation took place was the second of a series of three large group events held at Company headquarters in March and June and September of 2001.

This case study provides a snapshot of the company’s use of the appreciative inquiry methodology and the AI Summit in its ongoing process of

  • Discovering the organization’s core strengths and capacities
  • Envisioning opportunities for positive change
  • Designing the change into the organization’s systems, structures, products and culture, and
  • Implementing and sustaining change.

Included in this story is who was involved, the steps in the process, what the organization learned and how they have sustained what was learned since.

Who Was Involved?
The CEO/President of the organization was the champion of the overall process. A leader who believes strongly in engaging all the members of the organization in creating and executing the vision, he is one who encourages continuous learning while doing. With a spiritual base to his leadership, he saw Appreciative Inquiry as consistent with his commitment to build from strengths to create a better future.

Over the course of 7 months, 6 inquiries focused on business processes, and one company-wide inquiry focused on organizational excellence were conducted. Most employees were engaged in some way, from being interviewed to conducting interviews and being part of the inquiry from start to finish. In addition, customers, board members and other stakeholders’ voices were represented in the inquiry through their voices and their stories. Sixty people learned the process in order to, hopefully, be internal leaders of future inquiries.

What Were The Steps In The Process?

  • Engaging the senior leadership team
  • Convening the cross-functional/cross level planning group to plan the inquiry (What came to be called the “Dream Team)
  • Summit #1: Introduction to Appreciative Inquiry, Planning the Discovery, topic selection, planning the interviews, practicing the process
  • Interim process: Conducting interviews; Capturing the stories;
  • Summit #2: Collective Synthesis: what did we learn from these stories about process excellence? Collective Dreaming: if we could imagine these stories being everyday and ordinary, what would our processes look like? Designing our future: Enriching our process maps with our dreams to make them real.
  • Interim process: each process team crafted their plan for action or “delivery”
  • Summit #3: Collective review of what each process team had learned from the inquiry and what they had learned from each other; collective action on the company-wide inquiry (e.g., synthesis of stories, amplifying the stories to imagine more, designing what is possible and designing principles for being a world-class organization based on what was learned

What Did We Study?
According to the social construction theory, the language we use, the way we speak, creates our reality. As such, topic selection in any organizational study is fateful; we give life to what w study. In the first Summit, each process team selected its own topic for inquiry. The topic for each of the 6 teams were as follows:

  • Market to Sell (Focus: Customer Acquisition and Retention): Everyday Customer Amazement
  • Procure to Pay: Faster, Better, Cheaper
  • Order to Cash (Focus: Service) Customer Delight
  • Products and Promotions: Brilliant Process Management
  • Order to Cash Customized Relationships
  • Plan to Produce Excellence In Execution

In addition to the members of the six teams above, there was an additional group of people who were part of the planning group, many of whom were part of human resources, but were not members of a particular process team. At the first summit, they spontaneously organized themselves around a topic: communication. While this topic never became an official topic of this inquiry, it did receive subsequent attention as a topic worthy of attention in the company.

What Did We Learn?
The very process of planning the inquiry prompted the process teams to reflect on what aspect of the business they wanted to enhance and how. The premise that topic selection was fateful challenged them to find the language that best expressed that and to organize their interview protocols around that.

The interview process in the discovery phase of the inquiry challenged certain unspoken norms regarding who talks to whom about what. People had the opportunity to place faces with names in an organization that had only recently grown beyond the size of everyone knowing each other. Given the opportunity to talk to people in other functions, roles became people. Given the opportunity to talk to people outside the organization, interviewers gained new insight both from what they learned from the interview and from knowing themselves in a role of representing the organization in a different way than they were accustomed to.

The people who participated in the inquiry took great pride in owning the process. While the Appreciative Inquiry methodology offers certain principles for how it should be organized, they created their own nuances about how to adapt that process to their culture.

As the theory states, topic selection is fateful; the organization will begin to organize around how the inquiry is articulated. In this case, there were some wonderful surprises. Initially the inquiry was to focus on the entire organization in addition to the business process teams. Despite a decision to streamline the inquiry to just the business process teams, the energy to discover the qualities congruent with GMCR’s core values and beliefs that give life to the organization when it is at its best carried from the initial planning effort. Topics such as:

  • A shared vision and clear focus
  • Mind-blowing innovation and positive transformation and
  • Personal connections as competitive Advantage

were part of the interview process guiding the first summit. These words echoed throughout the process and helped to surface the essence of GMCR when it is at its best, in the company-wide roll up.

Another surprise the process opened a path for emerged from the group that was present without a business process team assignment. They organized their energy around a topic that most organizations could benefit from exploring: connected communications.

Once we organized around business process teams we recognized the implications of doing 6 simultaneous inquiries! Since we were teaching the Appreciative Inquiry process (technology transfer) while facilitating the inquiry, we chose to have all 6 teams simultaneously in the room. During the design phase of the Summit, we had each team set up as a station with people moving from one to the next. Having all the teams in the room at the same time allowed the opportunity for both additional comments to improve the processes as well as cross fertilization of idea that related from one process to another!

All of these fell under the category of “be careful what you ask for!”

Conditions For Success
We learn from our triumphs and our mistakes. In this case, our learnings were rich at both ends of the scale. At its best, the inquiry has potential to feed a culture for continuous learning (Wasserman, 2002). In order to realize the full potential of this and any other organization-wide intervention one needs:

  • Clear commitment and alignment of all the senior leaders: The Appreciative Inquiry methodology is a high engagement process. For many leaders, this is a shift from business as usual. If one person is not in agreement with the value of a high engagement methodology, their adherence to an old and contrasting paradigm can undermine the energy and the process. The process works best when the senior leadership team represents themselves as unified in their support for the process and what it activates.
  • Engagement of representatives from different perspectives: Knowing and welcoming the value of engagement of all voices all levels in the organization and beyond e.g., stakeholders and customers, is critical to leveraging what comes from the inquiry. As the process suggests, change is simultaneous to the inquiry; the topic selection is fateful. The gifts take on lives of their own. Being open, curious and prepared to welcome what comes of engaging multiple perspectives is critical to success.
  • Having ongoing rituals, processes and structures that reinforce the process and the principles of excellence. An organization is in a constant state of emergence. The tasks and activities might change, the names of the business processes that drive success may change, but the principles of process excellence and organizational excellence will continue to provide a compass for success. The company benefits from honoring that guide.

How Have We Sustained Change?
Signs of the sustained impact of the appreciative inquiry process are evident through rituals and practices that have become a part of doing business at GMCR.

  • Company Meetings – (biannually) At these meetings the program begins with story telling. The stories reinforce the shared vision and focus of the company, the passion for social responsibility that ties the people who work for the organization with the global communities and the local charities they support, and acknowledge those who are doing “mind-blowing innovation” in these areas. They are active and engaging and acknowledge the contribution of all who attend.
  • Leadership Meetings – these monthly meetings begin with some inquiry either one-on-one or in small groups. The inquiry focuses on the topic of the meeting serving to engage the participants, promote interactions and stimulate thinking about the agenda.
  • Process Team Meetings – these meetings continue to build on the stories that emerged from the inquiries to calibrate where the company is prompt more creative, effective and efficient business processes.
  • Sales Meetings – these biannual meetings tap into the creativity of the sales force to identify what they already know about their customers and what their customers teach them about the market to better improves customer intimacy and customer service.
  • Hiring Process – the inquiry process is used to both identify what qualities are needed for the position and how potential candidates might fit the company.
  • New Employee Orientation – the plan is to incorporate the appreciative inquiry process with new employee orientation. At present, the principles of the process have been incorporated with the initiation of new members of the senior leadership team. A time line is shared and key stories that convey the company at its best are told. Discussions follow that promote the collective creation of the newly formed team.
  • Performance Review Process – a process rooted in the social construction and appreciative inquiry model was piloted with the operations leadership team. Each member of the group crafted an interview protocol that inquired into their particular department in relationship to the function and selected people in a 360 relationship with them to interview.

This article presents how an organization used the Appreciative Inquiry Summit to study its business process teams to enhance profitability. The 4-D design was adapted for process design primarily by using process maps for the current and future design propositions. These visual representations provide an ongoing compass for continuous process improvement.

Ilene Wasserman
Principal, ICW Consulting Group

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