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May 1999


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Baskin Robbins' Best Flavor

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by Peter Block


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Baskin Robbins’ Best Flavor
Effective Teamwork Key to Implementing Effective Change

“In order to become effective as a customer service organization, you have to look to clean up your own house and get the refocus and reorganization ,” says Hal Courter, vice president for information technology (IT) with Baskin Robbins since 1990.

“When I arrived at Baskin Robbins in 1990,” Courter recalls, “they had 1970s IT systems. As a result of trying to maintain service levels from the existing systems and put in new technologies, we slowly developed a very ‘siloed’ and territorial organization.”

Symptoms included poor communications, poor inter-team efforts between IT “silos” and overworked and stressed employees and managers. “What had been a great way to put a project in place became a lousy way to take on new projects and deliver them on time,” says Courter. His organization was good at technical solutions, but not very client friendly. Complaints were common from other executives.

“We initially brought in outside consultants for some teambuilding. Then we realized this was a much bigger issue. The goal they ultimately identified was to transfer this very siloed, technically competent organization to one that would partner better with internal clients.

In two years, the department dismantled its silos and reassembled the organization. It was a good process, Courter notes, pointing out that he had no staff turnover in a department of 40 for 16 months. Typically IT departments experience a 20 percent annual turnover.
Getting the Gunk Out: The Key to Becoming Customer Focused
Paul Draper of Organizational Development Associates (ODA) worked with Courter in the transformation likes to quote Tom Peters, “It’s great to be customer focused, but you can’t be customer focused until you clean the gunk out of the system.”

There was a conscious effort to think systemically while reorganizing the department. “We could problem solve”—the modus operandi of most IT departments—“or we could think of problems more holistically.” They also chose to focus on causes rather than symptoms.

Managers were initially resistant, believing they could solve problems by simply talking to others in the organization. Draper gave them a mechanism to chart such communications over a two-week period. When they gathered, no one had done anything. “Managers were staring at their shoes, holding pieces of blank paper,” Draper remembers.

After the fact, a member of the management team recalls, “During the process, we acknowledged to ourselves that we were doing a D-minus job, but it took a while to get to that point. Once the group acknowledged that, we began to make progress. The key thing is that one day we recognized the need for change.”

It is as Easy as Changing the Tires on A Moving Automobile
Courter knew reorganizing would not be easy, especially given the pressure of daily work. He likens the task to changing tires on a moving car. But they forged ahead. Rather than defining a succinct mission, Courter described to his managers the department’s necessary qualities.

“Our goal,” he suggested at the time, “is to become more contemporary and effective. We’ll know we have reached this goal when we are accepted and invited by major departments to planning meetings because we add value.”

He envisioned the department as organized, not bureaucratic and envied by other departments as a strong team. “We wanted to have an attitude to continually improve ourselves and our organization,” he says.

The process began with the managers, who were, in fact, Courter says, “The major obstacle. They were the most threatened and had the greatest time constraints.” Four managers volunteered, somewhat grudgingly, to create the initial design, a new organizational chart. They held a series of off-site lunch meetings, getting to know one another better, since they came from different silos. Draper or another consultant joined them to facilitate trust building.

Draper says, “We found if we laid out steps (for this design team) too far in advance, we got immediate, big-time, off-the-scale resistance. So we had to retreat and consciously unfold one step at a time.” The new organizational chart they eventually created differed radically from the old silos.

At that point, all employees were involved. Courter says everyone joined one of six sub-teams for reorganization: infrastructure, work process, job descriptions, people in transition, communications and leadership. Later a “fun team” staged social events and group activities, but the group’s real task was to foster teamwork.

Each team worked with surprising effectiveness and enthusiasm. They were not necessarily led by managers, and they were often cross-functional. “The teams were a real eye-opener for managers,” says Courter. “For most of them, it’s where the light bulb went on. Most had been working long hours and spoon-feeding employees. Now they saw that employees could come up with a better set of suggestions that could be executed and be willing to put extra energy toward implementing them.”

Give a New Flavor a Chance: Who Knows You Just Might Like It
An employee recently observed, “In the beginning, our managers didn’t buy into the process. Everybody had doubts. Once staff members got into it, we got excited. When we could begin to see changes, we realized this was good. So we plugged away. The managers came around.”

Courter, too, was surprised. “They seized the project and actually got out in front of the managers. The managers were basically running behind them trying to catch up.” It wasn’t a text-book case, but the results were very pleasing.

The key component of the restructuring was to get managers communicating with one another and employees seen as valuable resources. To that end, each employee would have at least two supervisors: an administrative manager and one or more functional managers.

The latter managed specific projects, as in the past. A staff member now typically reports to two or three functional managers for various projects. The administrative manager takes a broader view, serving as an “advocate” for the employee, synthesizing reviews from the functional managers for the performance appraisals and providing an overall plan for career development.

Employees were invited to interview managers and express their first, second and third choices for their administrative oversight. Selecting their own bosses was an approach that reinforced staff members’ buy-in to the process.

Thirty-one Flavors Now Featuring the Latest Ingredient: Teamwork
Results have been positive. Courter gets regular feedback from other department heads that IT now anticipates and meets their needs. Productivity is up: The new structure makes it easier to re-allocate staff members with excess time when another project is delayed. Best of all, Courter says, he now manages a “healthy-stress” organization.
“Managers have found,” he observes, “that if they give power to staff, everyone is more productive and happier, and we get better solutions.” The team environment is now being noticed by other Baskin Robbins departments who would like to learn from their IT effort.

The effort cost around $300,000; Courter’s annual operating budget is $2.5 million. “Compared to the cost of (potential) turnover” — not to mention the value of increased departmental productivity — “this was a very cheap investment.”

Indeed, it would seem that Baskin Robbins has gotten the “gunk” out of the system. A new flavor — effective teamwork — is on the menu.

May '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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