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    Enabling Conversations

    One of the challenges in keeping up with trends for operational excellence is getting straight talk from people within your own organization. Tomorrow’s problems will most likely not be solved with today’s thinking. Consequently, it may behoove top management to seek opinions from those that will share daring alternatives to the status quo.

    George Day, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, refers to the process of learning from others participation in variable scenarios as “scenario learning”. According to Day, “[Scenario] Learning implies an intense discussion that challenges the tacit assumptions and mental models of each member of the management team. This provokes tension that leads to reflection, which is essential to collective learning. Learning also implies an on-going process in which the results of actions taken leads to further reflection and insight.”

    As many food manufacturers and grocers dive deeper in to private label products, there exists a transition away from brand excellence. Although brand is still very important, the industry is seeing its tried and true brands being threatened by the manufacturing and distribution excellence of retailers such as Cosco, Target, Wall-Mart, SuperValue, Safeway and Kroger. This is having an influence on traditional ideology for brand, and moreover, business building.

    What does this mean for your operations?

    Paradoxically, building a stable platform in which to refine and improve your manufacturing processes may require a large degree of seeming instability. The best run organizations manage this paradox by building teams that regularly battle among themselves. “Dissension and discussion is sometimes the best and only way to get from point A to point B”, says Richard Bernett, an instructor with Metro State University and Director of Operations for a food packaging equipment company. “If people can feel safe while they offer an alternative point of view”, Bernett continues, “then you’ll hear ideas you may have never considered and you’ll create an accelerated problem solving environment. On the other hand, if the culture tacitly squelches dialog, then it is not going to happen.”

    Steps to take:

    1) Rewrite the rules of engagement. “Open Door” policy sounds good on paper, but in practice is a lousy way to foster useful discussions. You’ll have to go out of your open door and in to the door of others if you want to be a leader in this realm.

    2) Add “Brainstorming” to your meeting agendas. Most people don’t really know what this means let alone how to make it structured and useful. Practice with someone who has experience with brainstorming (marketing people are usually well versed in this methodology).

    3) Learn to ask and not tell.  The death knell of good discussions is a blabbermouth. If you have a lot of authority in your organization, you are still the one that gets to ultimately decide. You may find that your decisions will be more informed and impacting if you ask you way to the conclusions that you make.

    Intense discussion is the kernel of lasting innovation and operational excellence. Use all of your resources to find the best ideas.

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