ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

April 1999


A Sunny Forecast
Grassroots Teams Help Sun Micorsystems Raise Customer Satisfaction

Coming Full Circle
Measuring and Improving Organizational Effectiveness

Oil Change
Externalization, Change Management Key to Realignment

Project Management:
Just Do It!

A Step by Step Overview ofa 1950's Organizational Tool Experiencing a 1990's Rebirth


Hope Is Where You Find It
by Peter Block

Sorry We're Closed: Diary of a Shutdown


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Sites Unseen
Reader's Favorite Websites

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Book Review

Letters to the Editor

Calendar of Events


A Sunny Forecast (continued)

From that we developed an architecture for what we would do with teams at Sun and then proceeded to develop a series of enablers for all of our teams including consistent training. We developed a definition of SunTeams that we thought would ring true, be easy to remember and be something that everybody could relate to throughout Sun.
Basically, our teams can be boiled down into seven words, “Process improvement through teamwork for customer loyalty.” That’s what we’re all about.
The end result of the first effort was that we had approximately 70 teams worldwide after about six months. We realized employees really wanted to get engaged. They wanted to make a difference and that was very important to them. We started with about 70 employees—they were the early adopters, those pioneers who jumped on the bandwagon with us. That’s how it all got started and it has grown significantly over the past three and half years.
NFC: Were teams formed on a voluntary basis?
Welsh: We refer to our program as a grassroots program. Every team that came together said, “I have identified something that needs improving. I’d like to form a team,” and they did that totally voluntarily. SunTeams are still a voluntary effort.
However, I think where some organizations, trying to form teams, probably fall short is that they consciously make their teams independent of management. We’ve made a conscious effort to include management in the process extensively throughout whatever the teams are doing. So part of what employees need to do when they form a team is to go out and find a management sponsor.
NFC: Was it apparent, not just to the people participating in the SunTeams program but to other people in the organization, that the things teams were working on really mattered and had an impact on customers?
Welsh: Yes. One of the things we have done is create a lot of internal communication on what’s going on with our teams. A part of that involves Scott McNealy who on a monthly basis does a session called W-SUN radio where he interviews people from different parts of the business. Those interviews are broadcast to all Sun employees. Scott periodically interviewed team leaders, team sponsors and team members who were involved in this process improvement effort and that gave the program a lot of press and helped spread the word. It’s really a key to the success of our program that it’s supported right from the top.
NFC: You talked about a focus on the customer and decision making at the lowest level possible. Are there any other guiding principles for this whole effort?
Welsh: At Sun we have taken a very strong stance on the importance of aligning all of the quality programs. We have, for instance, our various quality indices that are tracked regularly throughout the year including our customer loyalty index. We also survey through an independent organization thousands of our customers on a regular basis throughout the year. We track that customer loyalty index to see how satisfied our customers are. We also measure our own internal business processes. We’ve used these surveys to identify the top 50 dissatisfiers from our customers and we measure our improvement efforts on how we are responding to those dissatisfiers. Our quality vision is very simple—it’s to drive up the customer loyalty index and to drive down the dissatisfiers. Sun has integrated into the DNA of the entire company the importance of the results from each of these things because we compensate and take bonuses and profit-sharing throughout the company based on how we are doing, how successful we are in keeping that focus on the customer.
Where teams play into this is that they are the enablers that cause improvements to happen. Teams of people get focused around driving down dissatisfiers and working on issues that drive up the customer loyalty.
NFC: What type of training do these teams receive?
Welsh: It was important for us to get our teams to a point where they were all marching in the same direction. We worked with Xerox, which of course has teams, and Motorola, which has about 5,000 teams at their company—they are the grandfather of this program. Xerox has developed a problem-solving methodology that they offered in training to all their employees. We worked with them to “Sun-ize” it. We’ve licensed it from Xerox and this is offered as the base for all SunTeams. Basically, it’s problem solving and process improvement training. Teams across the company no matter where they are, in which division or in which country, are all using similar problem-solving and process improvement methodology. The benefit is that we can have virtual teams all over the world. The teams are all speaking the same language and they’re attacking the problems in process improvement using the same methodology.
NFC: Do you have anything that has really stood out for you as a key learning? Or now, based on all you know, can you think of anything you’d do differently?
Welsh: I think a key learning for people who are considering doing something like this would be to develop a methodology for communicating consistently and regularly to the entire organization. We are fortunate at Sun that we have the technology that allows us to do that. I realize not all companies do, but all companies do have some way of communicating and that’s extremely important.
We also learned in year one that if we left various arms across the company to devise their own reward and recognition programs for their events, that they were at times inconsistent. It’s amazing that we had the technology to communicate with our teams and with each other, but still developed an inconsistency in our rewards and recognition. It didn’t feel fair to team members and we ended up losing some momentum.
Also, we are a very large organization—we’ve got a huge layer of middle management between the executive staff and the grassroots folks that comprise the teams. The key learning for this, and it’s one we’re still working on, was the need to engage this level of middle management. They need to sponsor teams, to be mentors, to provide communication up, and down, the chain of command to help keep teams informed and on track. We weren’t as successful in years one and two at engaging the middle managers and helping them understand what parts they play in all of this.
NFC: Are more middle level employees serving on teams? For example, working on process issues at their level.
Welsh: Yes, I am seeing more of that. There have been teams of middle management folks which have formed. In fact, they all wanted to be the sponsor of the team. I remember I saw one team registration come through our system where they had something like six sponsors and one team member.
NFC: Can you describe the process teams go through to form?
Welsh: We really try and make it easy for teams to form. One way we did this was by not having a bureaucratic process for allowing teams to form. If teams think it looks too bureaucratic and cumbersome to get a team started, then many times they don’t want to bother.
In our corporate quality division we have a website that has with a SunTeams resource center. It’s got a ton of information for teams on a variety of things that help and enable and encourage and so forth. One of the things, which is the only thing they have to do, is go online and fill out what is called a SunTeams planner. It’s simply a one-pager that asks for some key information that all teams should be thinking about before they have formed as a team anyway. For instance, they have to have a customer. The customer can be internal or external, but they need to have one. In this process they also identify some key information concerning what they are working on, what their goals are, who is on their team, who their sponsor is, and so forth. Once they submit the online form, it is automatically sent to us in corporate quality. That’s strictly for tracking our purposes. The information also goes directly to their quality office within the team’s division. That quality office is made up of key quality managers. These people begin to contact the team leaders who submitted the information. They begin to identify if they need any help in working through their process and just figure out what they can do to help to make the team more successful.
The information from the online form also goes to Sun University. Someone from the Sun education arm then calls the team leader to verify that they’ve had the problem-solving and process-improvement training. Sun University also examines what their other needs are and directs them toward the type of training their team can get. Now everybody—the team, Sun Corporate Quality, the teams immediate quality managers, and Sun’s training program—is on the same page and aware of what’s going on with the team.
NFC: Can a team’s performance affect its compensation?
Welsh: I’m sure a piece of that is baked into their review process, so it has some impact for them at the local level. The only reward, from the program itself that they are getting, is the recognition. If I cycle back to what I was first talking about, we have integrated alignment, and with all of the improvements that are made, we are all compensated as a company.
NFC: By raising satisfiers and driving down dissatisfiers?
Welsh: Exactly. Those satisfiers and dissatisfiers affect salary, compensation, the bonus structure and profit-sharing. So the whole company benefits.
NFC: So is every employee eligible for profit-sharing?
Welsh: Yes, the bonus structure is level-dependent, but profit-sharing is available to everyone.
NFC: How do you get rejuvenated? Do you have any outside passions that help you get reenergized?
Welsh: I really believe strongly in the importance of leading a balanced life. I believe passionately in engaging the front-line folks, because they’ve got the answers that companies have to tap into.
But I think that what energizes me most is knowing that what I’m doing is making a difference. Frankly, the question throws me a bit, primarily because in all my conversations about SunTeams no one has ever asked me how I manage to take care of myself. Thank you! I believe in the importance of maintaining balance in our lives. I do live in Scotts Valley, a lovely coastal community, and enjoy the best of that world—the Santa Cruz mountains and our beautiful Pacific Coast. I also believe in the positive power of humor. I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously and therefore manage to weave humor and work into the same tapestry. I have an “M.D.” degree (“Doctor of Mirth”) and often share my knowledge in this area through keynotes and workshops. By way of this platform, I coach others in the personal value of incorporating humor into everything we do... and the bottom-line benefits to be gained through a lighter approach. When I hear an organization claim they, “ hard and then they play hard,” I cringe. Play isn’t supposed to be “hard.” That’s why they call it “play.” And, I mentioned earlier that one of the lessons I learned from early quality efforts was that “...simply working harder doesn’t always work.” If you put SunTeams under a microscope you would definitely observe hard work and huge benefits to Sun Microsystems, but, you would also find strong evidence of my belief in the positive power of integrating work and play. And, you wouldn’t have to look very far to also uncover one of my many life philosophies: “If you’re gonna walk on thin ice, you may as well dance.”

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