ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - March 2000

Issue Highlight - The Hunt For Next November

April in the state of Missouri is turkey-hunting season...For some reason the experience, despite its discomforts, is spiritually renewing and leaves you a little more optimistic about life.

In This Issue...
Angels With Rotary Wings
Reality Mirrors Movie
Stop The Merry-Go-Round
Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Diary of a Shutdown

Reality Mirrors Movie
Devastating fire Endsin Success at Malden Mills

--The story of team success at Malden Mills is hardly run of the mill. In fact, it’s more like a film by DeMille. It opens with a vision, a teaming concept that is crippled by catastrophe, but restored and strengthened by an owner’s unparalleled humanity and courage. Revived in the crisis of reconstruction, the teaming effort gains momentum with careful counseling and increasing cooperation. The final reel records measurable benefits in cost reduction and quality improvement, as well as greater employee satisfaction. Happy ending!

Film scripts are easily fabricated, but for the men and women associated with textile fabric Polartec, manufactured at Malden Mills in Lawrence, Mass., overcoming a disastrous, heart-breaking “test by fire” and rebuilding a company both physically and organizationally demanded dedication, hard work and unprecedented cooperation.

Tragedy Strikes
Yoram Shahar, of nearby North Andover, was a senior manager in Malden Mills’ upholstery fabric division, veteran of 12 years with the company. Both he and CEO/owner Aaron Feuerstein agreed that the upholstery unit, the smaller of the firm’s two plant divisions, might be a good place to introduce team-management processes. In 1994 and early ‘95, they began working with Mindy Gewirtz and Peter Gumpert, both Ph.D. members of Boston’s GLS Consulting firm.

“In 1995, we conducted an organizational audit at Malden Mills Industries and provided feedback which led to the forming of a joint union-management steering committee that September,” Gumpert recalls. “Working with the committee, GLS created a customized curriculum and by November team training for the upholstery unit was under way.”
Approximately 400 night-shift employees were scattered through the nine buildings on the Malden site when fire broke out on the evening of December 11, 1995. Shahar had just returned to his hilltop home when he saw a blaze in the distance. The Malden mills were burning and winter winds were fanning the flames.

Aaron and Louise Feuerstein, family and friends were gathered at a Boston restaurant celebrating Aaron’s 70th birthday when a frantic call told them their mills were burning. By the time the Feuersteins arrived in Lawrence, the six-alarm fire was out of control. Shahar’s upholstery division was a total loss. Flames finished off the dyeing and finishing plant. The five-story main building was in shambles. Hundreds of workers watched as their jobs seemed to be going up in smoke.

As it turned out, the Feuersteins were not about to forsake their longtime employees or give up on Lawrence. “We stayed here when other textile mills left to find cheaper labor in the South or in offshore locations, and we’re going to stay and rebuild,” the owners announced to Malden employees the following morning. Workers were paid in full, together with a $275 holiday bonus and a note from Aaron Feuerstein: “Do not despair,” it read, ending with, “God bless each of you.”

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going
Among those on hand during the difficult days following the fire were the consultants from GLS. “We pitched in to help wherever we felt we could,” Gerwitz reports. An existing building that had recently been remodeled to accommodate a mainframe computer escaped serious damage and was quickly turned into temporary headquarters for the textile firm as well as a crisis management area.

The saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” would seem an ideal description of Malden’s CEO. In the firm’s rebuilding, Feuerstein’s confidence was exceeded only by his determination. “Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” he declared, and one week after the fire, a salvaged fleece-finishing machine was at work in a makeshift manufacturing facility. Informed of the fire, customers were promised that merchandise would be forthcoming as soon as possible. By January 2, 1996, 80 percent of the orders were being filled.

Putting the Team to the Test
GLS consultants were certain that the team project, which showed such promise in its early days with the upholstery division, would be “low man on the totem pole” in reconstruction priorities. But they didn’t reckon with the “can do” spirit of Malden’s CEO. As he saw his fabric phoenix beginning to stir, Feuerstein became more concerned than ever about the “human equation.” He saw the fire not only as a door closing on the mills’ past, but also as a window of opportunity for change. The team-management effort would continue and be expanded.

“Problems revealed in our initial diagnostic audit of the upholstery division were confirmed by a supplemental audit of the larger manufacturing division as well,” GLS Senior Partner James W. Smith recalls. Some of the remainders of the command-and-control based system included competitive rather than collaborative relationships among divisions and departments; poorly planned or poorly coordinated work patterns; blaming problems on others and treating problems as if they were moment-to-moment crises rather than seeking lasting solutions.

The change strategy became a broad collaborative effort between GLS consultants and key managers at Malden Mills Industries.

“We operated on several levels simultaneously and worked to avoid generating strong resistance too early,” Gerwitz points out. “We also maintained a consistent link between the CEO’s social principles and the effort to enhance collaboration at all levels. We strongly emphasized the synergy between teams and the textile firm’s strategic intent and vision. We stressed the effect of teamwork on measurable, tangible business results. Teams were made aware of their capacity to become more responsive to market changes, to transform Malden Mills Industries into a 21st century organization.”

According to the consultants, the implementation strategy for these changes involved loosening the control of senior management over day-to-day decisions, gradually turning these over to people closest to the work. GLS also broke new ground by building their team effort from the middle of the organization rather than starting at the top. From the middle, team activity moved upward to top management and downward to the production floor.

“We designed a cross-functional teaming structure that we hoped would repair and strengthen relationships among employees at all levels,” Smith emphasizes. Team management rooms were set up in the building that had served as crisis services immediately after the fire. Here cross-functional and cross-level groups received 80 hours of teamwork and leadership development training under the supervision of GLS consultants.

“Thus we were able to create a community where work could be accomplished more effectively,” Smith adds.

“The team steering committee became the engine for organization renewal,” Gewirtz hastens to explain. “Eventually an executive team, a broad-based strategy council, a divisional policy and planning team, a manufacturing operations team and a number of production support teams were created.” Hoping to extend the influence of change, GLS provided individual coaching for division or department managers.
Consultants also created measures of team success, productivity and quality. Bi-monthly, random-sample surveys were set up to provide “soft” indicators of teamwork and morale.
Might not such surveys reveal pockets of resistance to change?
“Yes,” Gerwitz replies, “but we see resistance as part of the normal state of affairs, actually an indicator that changes are taking place. People can desire that changes be made and yet still fear them.”

In its measurement of progress and success in the team-management effort, the consultants developed a two-fold approach, one a standard performance measurement acceptable to financial analysts and another to survey the less tangible aspects of cultural transformation that also led to improved business results. The early returns have been most gratifying. A study linking components of the organizational renewal with cost reduction initiatives and product quality improvement indicate that the overall savings directly attributable to the teamwork initiative has been very substantial.

All’s Well that Ends Well
In May of 1996, work began on major construction at Malden Mills. In September of 1997, less than two years after fire engulfed the old textile buildings, Aaron and Louise Feuerstein christened a handsome, multi-storied, 450,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art dyeing and finishing plant. According to recent reports, sales in Malden Mills’ Polartec and other apparel and upholstery fabrics are growing and employee numbers are as high or higher than they were on that fateful night of December 11, 1995.

Just like a movie the town is saved, the good guy wins and there is a happy ending for everybody.

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