Staff Teams Build Effective Solutions

Introducing forms of participation to a traditional management hierarchy was the goal; a quality improvement process was the method. The history of Hanover Consumer Co-op and my own history produced this opportunity.

In this article, I will first explain how Hanover Co-op developed a quality improvement program based on teams, then illustrate the program through the example of team-based improvements to the co-op's delivery system.

Background to an opportunity

Hanover Consumer Co-op in Hanover, New Hampshire was founded in 1936. Early managers ensured that the co-op responded to member needs, and as the product line expanded the store developed into a hybrid market, known regionally for its large selection of quality, hard to find products.

The co-op was blessed with strong leadership from two general managers in Harry Gerstenberger and his nephew Arthur Gerstenberger. who served Han-over from 1949 until 1988. They left a legacy of effective, although somewhat hierarchical administration. Both were managers who were very "hands on" and directive. Under the bylaws and through practice the general manager was the final arbiter on most issues. There was little formal training in supervision, and before 1993, even though the staff had grown to almost one hundred, Hanover had never had a human resources director. There were no training programs, no formal structure for evaluations and virtually no personnel policies.

My previous work experience, at Puget Consumers Co-op in Seattle, was with forms of worker management and team-based systems. My tenure there was during the transition from a management system based on worker participation and decision making to a more traditional system headed by a strong general manager. While the new system still al-lowed workers ample access to management decisions, I personally felt PCC staff lost a great opportunity when worker self management ultimately failed.

When I came to Hanover in 1992, my bias was to try to introduce some forms of participation to a traditionally hierarchical system. A method to achieve that goal was through the introduction of a quality improvement process. From reading I had done on TQM and similar approaches, I knew a key element of continuous improvement was through the involvement of staff people closest to the processes one wanted to affect. This seemed to be a promising way to proceed at Hanover.

In 1994, we began working on the elements of a quality improvement program that was team based. We put effort into developing a multi-departmental group to lead the process (the Quality Council), established functional teams to tackle problems (called Process Improvement Teams or PITS), and trained groups of facilitators to direct the teams in their work.

Improving delivery systems

Our new product delivery system is one example of how these techniques have been used to improve operations. In 1996, with the Co-op's store in Hanover rapidly growing in an already overcrowded space, the board and membership voted to accept management's recommendation to expand to a second store. Because costs for the new leased building were going to represent a significant increase in expense over the Hanover store, a smaller back room area was planned. The new store, in nearby Lebanon, was to have a storage area more like a mass market supermarket, with less than half the back room space of the Hanover store. The smaller space meant the new store was going to have to adopt a "just in time" system to handle product, yet the staff had never worked with such a system. We had a problem to solve.

About a year before our new Lebanon store was to open, I asked the Quality Council to form a Process Improvement Team (PIT). This PIT was to study systems changes needed to implement a "just in time" product delivery program. The team was asked to determine problems that needed to be addressed, suggest a core group of staff to address them and develop a timeline.

The Just in Time PIT was formed from representatives of purchasing, receiving, information systems, and operations (of stocking) areas of the store. In addition, the group also included a trained facilitator. The facilitator is a key member of each PIT and ensures that the work of the group is well organized. (See the sidebar on facilitator training.) The facilitator also sets the meeting times and agendas. He or she focuses attention on the meeting process, so that the other PIT team members can focus on content.

First stage: collect data

In the early stages of studying the just in time system, group members spent a lot of time trying to understand the scope of the problems they were given. They looked at the systems at work in the Hanover store for ordering, receiving, and stocking. Next, the group made comprehensive lists of issues, concerns and problems. In this early, data gathering stage, the facilitator was instrumental in keeping the team focused not on solutions but on the enumeration of issues and problems. Eventually, the team began to make headway by taking a "big picture" approach to the problem. A big breakthrough came when they began to realize that creating a just in time program involved complex processes that could not be dealt with through simple changes to one department's procedures or one person's job description. Our problem was a systems problem, and with that key understanding the group went about defining the components of the system.

Defining components of the co-op's delivery system was a fairly easy task. Using quality improvement tools, the group identified all the areas affecting delivery; scheduling, ordering, receiving and stocking functions all needed coordination. Group members understood intuitively (in part because each performed a function within the system) that each function operating independently and without coordination would make a just in time system impossible to achieve.

Second stage: generate ideas, analyze and evaluate solutions

As the elements of the problem began to become clearer, the group divided the work of addressing each area. For example, the group tasked with the ordering system identified frequency of delivery and vendor purchasing requirements as two issues critical to the success of the just in time system. In both of those areas, communication with vendors was seen as a key to developing the delivery system needed to achieve just in time deliveries. The team classified vendors to determine optimal delivery times per week for each vendor. They suggested working with the vendors to schedule deliveries to achieve goals for delivery frequency.

Using the same kind of logic, the group also suggested contacting vendors to discuss purchasing requirements that were counter to the goal of reducing inventory held in the store. Creative ways were suggested to help operations cope with purchasing requirements. For example, backstock and crossdocking arrangements from vendor to vendor were suggested. Ideas were beginning to create the outline of an action plan.

Third stage: find solutions, develop action plan, monitor

Over the course of a month, the Just in Time PIT refined its information and focused on solutions. A detailed action plan was established for receiving, ordering and stocking product. For each area, a "core staff" was identified to carry out the plan, and timelines were developed. At last the plan was ready, several months before the opening of the Lebanon store.

After a total of three months of work, the team presented its plan to the Quality Council and management team. The suggested action items were endorsed by both groups and instituted by those staff people identified with the plan.

The quality improvement process was not finished at this point, however. The final steps in the process involve monitoring the changes made and making adjustments if the changes have not produced the desired results.

As it happens, the work of the Just in Time PIT resulted in smooth operations of the Lebanon store's delivery system from the beginning. To be sure, as the store has gotten busier, some of the procedures developed have had to be modified slightly and some new equipment purchased. Change were anticipatedd, and they came from the people who were working within the systems. Each change has served to improve the original system.


Benefits from the work of the Just in Time team were numerous. It allowed the co-op to successfully function in the new building without the necessity of expensive space devoted to an unproductive non-sales area. In addition, the process had multiple positive effects on staff. The group was drawn from areas that do not always have contact on a regular basis. Through the quality improvement process, the team realized the interdependence of departments.

The work also helped to ease the anxiety of people who were scheduled to work in the new store and had to deal with the lack of back room space. They were able to better underastand how the new system was going to work, because they had helped design it. Other benefits included a sense of accomplsihemnt and a feeling of higher morale among participants in the group.


Facilitator Training Helps Build Teams

Facilitation is a crucial component of the quality improvement initiative at the Hanover Co-op. Good facilitators guide teams of all kinds in performing better.

At the Hanover Co-op, we have a lot of meetings. (Hey, we're a co-op!) We also have a lot of unproductive meetings. A few years ago, we contracted with Gretchen Cherington, a local consultant, to develop a training program for group facilitation. This was in addition to work she was doing with us on establishing a quality improvement program.

In the last three years, many co-op staff have attended an introductory course in facilitation, and several of them have taken part in an advanced course. In addition to class work requirements, each participant in the training receives a Team Facilitator Manual which reinforces the learning of the courses.

Course work and the Manual help facilitators at Hanover in developing effective teams. They learn how to form gorups, how to ensure the group is making progress, and how to handle potential trouble spots. They also learn to use tools to help teams do problem solving, such as flow charts or fishbone charts. In short, facilitators are provided with essential information and tips on how to make teams successful.

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