How do you improve an organization that is already performing well and knows it? That was the dilemma faced in 2015 at the services unit of Alstom Transport (Romania), which maintains the rolling stock for Metrorex, the Bucharest subway system. When Metrorex awarded the 15-year contract in 2004, Alstom took over the city’s four maintenance sites and the associated staff from the previous vendor. When the next contract is awarded in 2018, a competitor could replace Alstom and rehire the current workers. So with the future secure for workers but not the company, a sense of urgency was needed where little existed.
After weighing various approaches to transformation, it was concluded that the company’s hierarchical leadership model had outlived its usefulness. Instead of dictating change from the top, it was decided that the “engine” of transformation would be distributed to all levels of the organization. It unfolded in 3 phases.
1. Assimilate. Leaders collaborated with managers and front-line employees to generate ideas for improvement and assimilate them in a widely shared strategy for implementation.
Face-to-face interviews and discussions with employees, facilitated by a third party to ensure candor, uncovered opportunities for improvement and renewed leadership’s direct contact with the workforce. We also learned things about each other that created new respect. For instance, I learned that one of our front-line workers managed a soccer club in his spare time, confirming the belief that our people were capable of handling far more autonomy and responsibility.
“Authority to spend money to correct deviations in environment, health and safety requirements was transferred directly to the shop floor.”
2. Create. To test the validity of empowering employees, we created an ambitious pilot program at a single site. Authority to spend money to correct deviations in environment, health and safety (EHS) requirements was transferred directly to the shop floor. Individuals were empowered to manage their own time off simply be entering their plans online in the HR system. Flexible work hours were introduced so teams could more closely match capacity with variable demand. Teams were empowered to design their own workflows and to devise ways of eliminating waste. Executives participated as collaborators, not commanders. Once a month, members of the leadership team worked alongside frontline employees, helping perform basic maintenance tasks.
The net result: Lead times for maintenance tasks dropped 20%-30%. Totals hours worked fell 10%-15%. Absenteeism fell 30%. And Lean maturity scores doubled on employee involvement, training, problem solving and continuous improvement.
3. Engage. To assess where we stood at the end of the pilot phase, we administered the Organization Accelerator Questionnaire (OAQ), a proprietary tool developed by Heidrick & Struggles to assess 13 factors that drive organizational performance. Our largely high scores on drivers of performance confirmed our perception that organization-wide deployment of our approach to transformation was warranted.
We began implementation with a new round of small-group meetings at all sites to determine the best way to transfer responsibility to the shop floor at each depot. Once again, members of the leadership team immersed themselves in the process, coaching managers on ceding control, engaging employees, and assessing the adoption of new ways of working. The benefits first seen in the pilot have now spread to the other sites.
The ability to do more with less has positioned the company to be able to offer a far more competitive contract bid with Metrorex. A level of productivity and cost effectiveness has been achieved that could be difficult for competitors to match. And with contract renewal looming, performance is likely to continue to accelerate as newly empowered, fully engaged employees have more reason than ever to want Alstom to remain the incumbent.