I had the good forfute to initiate in 1997 and then nurture for 12 years, an employee engagement programme that is yet unique in India’s corporate sector in terms of innovation, motivation and contribution to the balance sheet.
On the night of 9 September, when Air India Express flight IX 622B took off from Chennai, headed for Kuala Lumpur, it had 185 passengers, all of them employees of Ashok Leyland. Around the same time, flights were taking off with their colleagues, from airports at Bangalore Mumbai and New Delhi. They were headed for the Genting Highlands south of Kuala Lumpur to compete in the finals of Improve 2009, joined by judges, guests and volunteers. Together, a group of 460, many of them using their hurriedly obtained passports for the first time.
IMPROVE is Ashok Leyland’s home-grown innovation contest for employee teams. Successfully running for the last 12 years, it is an annual, company-wide contest for projects implemented by employee teams that yield both tangible and intangible benefits. More significant are the ideas it promotes – teamwork and healthy competition among employees of the different functions and Units of the Company, across levels.
IMPROVE originated in the difficult years of the recession in the mid 90s, which taught Ashok Leyland valuable lessons in cost control and efficiency improvement. In line with the low demand, production had to be curtailed, by reducing the number of working days. The Company employed a unique earn-now-work-later arrangement, by paying employee salaries as usual and ‘banking’ the days of closure. Yet morale was getting affected. In factories, output is the common measure of success and group/individual contribution to the organization. Any fall, no matter the cause, hurts pride. It became important to engage the employees meaningfully and in an exciting way.
For some time then, the leadership had been aware of the need for a dose of innovation in its employees. The rigourous preparations for ISO 9002 and later ISO 9001 had created a disciplined attitude to work. But it was clear that to meet competition and customer expectations, the workforce had to transit from compliant to empowered, from disciplined to self-directed.
Competitions are intrinsically exciting and team competitions even more so. At a minimum level, it was expected that employee teams would take up deficiencies and inefficiencies they would have already noticed in their workplaces but could not take up in the busy period. There was also the basket of quality, cost and delivery issues to pick from. At a higher plane, Improve had the potential to pursue and showcase innovation in the team format. Helpfully, initiation to TQM in the late 80s had already sawn the seeds of the quality circle movement.
Since its inception, with just 72 teams participating in the first edition, IMPROVE has grown from being a motivational program to an important employee engagement initiative, handsomely contributing to the Company’s balance sheet. During 2008 and 2009, over 5000 projects each were successfully completed by employee teams made up of over 5000 employees – having tasted improve, many of them are members in multiple teams.
Projects address issues as varied as customer satisfaction, cost, quality, safety and environment. Common to these projects is the facile use of quality techniques and the ability of the human mind to observe and ask, “why?”. At frequent team meetings, the members soak in the problem, incubate it in their minds and are emboldened to ask, “why not?”. The solutions they pursue are unique and unprecedented. Through theoretical and empirical trials, they hit upon the best solution.
Over the years, validation of the projects has also become more stringent. Some of the steps that ensure IMPROVE remains transparent are: a finance validation on the cost benefits claimed by teams; a 3-month implementation period that validates the benefits and a final scrutiny of the shortlisted national finalists teams by a Central Committee.
At ‘mini-Improves’ held at the Company’s manufacturing plants and major offices – for months, in large plans — these projects are judged, to arrive at the 66 best teams who make it for the National Finals. There, months of work spilling beyond the mandated working hours are captured and presented, to be evaluated by an expert panel of judges (both experienced professionals from within the organisation and external experts). This includes a Q&A session that tests the team members’ thoroughness with the project. Marks are awarded for project selection and analysis, results, measures for sustenance and the element of innovation.
In retrospect, it is easier to identify what worked for improve.
1.Relevance. Improve proved equally relevant for the Company and the participants. For the participants, Improve has provided a high visibility platform to showcase their achievements. The recognition need, being insatiable, is a full tank of fuel to propel Improve. In a welcome role reversal high on motivational value, the teams make presentations to the top management and other internal guests. For the participants, it is an emotional high, further boosted to hear Mr R Seshasayee, MD, to say : “I come to Improve to recharge my batteries”.
What is more, many veterans have now become compulsive problem solvers, their minds taking the trained routes. It has boosted both their self-worth and their comfort with collaboration.
With employees owning and solving problems, Company benefits from the engagement of employee minds, not just hands. The total gains netted by the successful projects in 2009 exceeded Rs 1,200 million, of which Rs 213 million potentially recurring annually.
2.Sustainability : The perennial scope for improvement makes Improve sustainable. The largest room in the world is after all the room for improvement. Improve was greatly helped by the introduction of Mission Gemba, an employee empowerment initiative under which the manufacturing areas are divided into hundred and five Gembas, with employees empowered to implement improvements and solutions in their respective work areas. For all the good work done at the Gembas, Improve has become the showcase. While the cake is baked round the year at the Gembas, improve is the icing on the cake, an inspiration and a round-the-year aspiration.
3.Adaptability : The Improve contest scheme has evolved over the last 12 years, in response to changed contexts and new learnings. The first learning came at the maiden contest. The preliminaries to shortlist the finalists saw a lot of excitement and energy. But when they assembled for the finals of month later, the mood was sombre. Learning: You cannot rewind human emotions. Since then, the shortlisting of the 12 best teams and their final presentations are held back- to- back, as part of the National Finals running into three or four days.
When the participation began to plateau, the MD fired the booster rocket that took improve to a new trajectory. Noticing that it was becoming a limited membership club, he appealed to the initiated to go back and form five new teams each. To encourage new membership, two streams where created, with slots for veteran and newcomer teams in the last 12. Another change of far-reaching importance was effected last year: only mixed teams, no exclusive executive teams or operated teams, from the manufacturing plants. A step that puts employees, irrespective of resignations, on the same side, that of solutions, not problems. Contests have a way of creating common interest groups, by providing a new axis of interest cutting through hierarchies and designations.
4.Brand building. In terms of brand values, Improve aligns well with the Company’s brand values: International, innovative, speedy, value creator and ethical. The event format, over the years, has added a few complimentary values, of suspense, spontaneity and celebrations. There are just three gold trophies and another six trophies in silver and bronze, making for a narrow apex in the rewards hierarchy. This is in stark contrast to a large number of trophies awarded at international quality contests. This difficult- to- get character has come to underline the accent on meritocracy, which has been validated by occasional skew in the distribution of winners among the manufacturing plants. Fairness and transparency have to be felt to ensure trust in the judging process and the results, by teams who have worked so hard that they tend to believe they are the best.
Use of 360° branding around event themes can create short spells of hypnotism as was borne out by the participants becoming James Bond or Ronaldino, under the influence of theme audiovisuals, when on stage. The high pedestal implied by invoking such super achievers is not hyperbol: by attempting the unprecedented and daring to improve the past, they are super achievers in their respective fields. Along with these emotional highs, Improve offers a rare opportunity for uninhibited play for the child in them – be it the theme-based games or dancing or singing, in daily life, these are self-expressions denied to adults.
Events gain in impact and memorability when they become ‘e-vents’, vents for emotions. Improve is an example.