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Lesson #2: Developing a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Jean Bye

This column is the second of seven installments based on Jean Bye’s 2022 Hoyt Memorial Lecture, “Seven Keys to Long-Term Success: Lessons from a 50-Year Career,” delivered at CastExpo in Columbus, Ohio.

When we finish school, many of us are excited that we are done. We can go out in the world and have an impact. School is behind us. Yet the most important lesson we needed to learn in school was the ability to learn. To be successful, none of us can ever stop learning.

The most successful people and the most successful organizations are those who are learning every day. Learning from mistakes. Learning from their peers. Learning from books, magazines, and seminars. Learning from their competitors. Learning from wherever they can and integrating it into what they do. In fact, fostering a natural curiosity has been shown to reduce bias, reduce anxiety, and bring higher levels of engagement at work.

Without continuous learning and growth, the organization and the individual are stuck. At Dotson, I watched employees stand at the same machine doing the same job for 20 years. When automation changed their job, they were unable to learn a new job because they had lost the ability and confidence to learn and grow.

If you want to lead people toward continuous improvement you must do that by teaching them to constantly change, learn, and grow. Nurture an openness to change and growth. At Dotson, we do that in several ways.

First, we support all learning. We pay 100% of tuition costs for people to take college classes and get degrees that are related to their job. We have paid for many MBA degrees for a wide variety of non-executive employees. In addition, we pay 50% of all education. We paid 50% for an employee to take a class in artisan bread baking. In paying for this, we were leading with not just our words but with our dollars to create employees who were confident in learning and sharing that learning. (Not to mention the wonderful bread we got!)

Learning is exciting and contagious. When one employee goes into the breakroom excited about what they are doing and learning—even (or especially) something outside of work, other employees listen and absorb some of that positivity. In addition, we publicly recognize and celebrate our employees who are putting in the extra effort to learn something new.

A second way we support that culture of growth and change is when something significant is going to change, such as starting a new lean effort—we put 100% of our employees into a hands-on lean class to assure they understood and were on board with where we were going. We did not expect them to be lean experts, but we wanted them to feel appreciated, important, involved, and confident in the changes we were going to launch. They trusted that we knew what we were doing and learned something at the same time.

A third example is that we created “exchange” programs with select other foundries where we trade employees so we can learn best practices from each other. This allows shop floor, maintenance, and supervisory employees to develop an appreciation that there were other ways to do things. In addition to opening up to other ways, the employees feel important and appreciated.

As a part of this culture of change, Dotson moved away from valuing our employees simply by their longevity. While we do appreciate our 40-year employees, they may be more stuck in how they do things. We equally value that five-year employee who is constantly searching to grow and find a better way. Our world today moves too quickly to simply do what we used to do. We need to value both longevity and initiative.

At Dotson, we find real value from supporting our employees in their life and growth. We have a psychologist who monthly walks through our operation on every shift to visit with employees and help them problem solve things in their life that may be interfering with work. We also have a physical therapist walking the floor and supporting any physical concerns the employees may be dealing with. And we have two different career support specialists available to support employees with career challenges, such as a supervisor seeking advice on how to deal with a difficult employee. We work to bring experts into our company to support our employees’ learning and growth in the problems they are encountering on a day-to-day basis in both their work and personal lives.

A final example is Dotson’s $10,000 program. Any time the company plans to spend over $10,000 on a project, we put together a cross-functional group to participate in the analysis of the project. This group will often travel to see the potential equipment and visit with operators or maintenance at a competitor currently using the equipment. They are part of preparing the cost justification, which means they understand the operating outcomes needed to justify the purchase. When a project is rejected, they understand why the presentation or support fell short. It is a great learning opportunity—particularly for shop floor employees.

TAKEAWAY #2: Continually learning, growing, and improving is critical for the individuals within the organization if the organization is to also grow and improve. Our approach, as managers, makes a huge difference on avoiding stagnation.