Get Quick Wins and Empower Employees with WorkOut Events

Adrian Dunn

The most under-rated approach to process improvement is the WorkOut, says Adrian Dunn, Process Improvement Lead at BP Lubricants. In this article, Dunns looks at how WorkOut events can be used to help you achieve quick results especially for those processes that have been lurking in your organization for quite some time.

Originally designed in the Jack Welch era at General Electric (GE) in the late 1980’s, the stated aims of the GE workout were to break out of bureaucracy and empower employees to fix the issues that impacted their ability to serve customers or create value.

A WorkOut event is a strongly facilitated meeting of a group of people who work in different functions across a defined process area, and who share a common problem which is described in a written challenge from an appropriate leader.

This challenge should be something that is important to the organisation, but should also be close to the hearts of the participants, who should be people who work every day in the process area and who feel the pain of inefficiency. Typical challenges might be "Improve our invoice accuracy rate from 75% to 95%" or "Increase the number of railcars we can load each day from 25 to 42".

In both of these cases it is clear where the benefit for the organization lies but for the participants, the pain is in the re-work, customer complaints or other hassle which impacted their daily work.

During the WorkOut event, optimally of 3 days duration, the participants will address the challenge by writing problem statements which describe what is stopping the desired performance; creating solution statements which will address the problem, quantifying the costs, benefits and risks of each solution and then proposing an action plan by which the solution would be implemented.

All of this is presented on the last afternoon to the Decision Making Panel (or Town Hall Meeting in GE) where a single leader or a small group of leaders with the authority to make decisions on the spot will review the proposals to either approve them, reject them (with reasons) or occasionally propose an amendment.

One of the features of WorkOut is that the implementation of action plans must be managed by one or more of the participants and must be achievable within 90 days – thus stopping the creation of any large projects.

Many companies have adapted the WorkOut to fit within their working culture. Oftentimes, those companies have given the approach a different name to fit in with internal branding. But the approach and concept remains the same.

How we used it at BP

In 2004, the Workout was offered to our fledgling Continuous Improvement initiative at BP Lubricants as a communications and engagement approach. At that time, we were busy introducing a full scale Green through to Master Black Belt Lean Six Sigma certification program.

We quickly realized that in a global organisation of over 90,000 people, a full on Six Sigma roll out would take a very long time so we decided to use WorkOut as an introductory approach to continuous improvement, enabling more people to start improving processes and engaging more people in each event than a single green belt project could.

We ran a global WorkOut programme for 4 years with a core team of just 5 people, supplemented by a consultant partner who provided us with appropriate Lead Facilitators where specific language competence was required. During that time we trained approximately 400 facilitators and ran over 250 events, so what did we learn?

1. Scoping

The scoping phase is the make or break point for any WorkOut event. We used SIPOC to set the process boundaries of the scope and to identify the groups of people who had to be involved as participants. Our key findings were:
  • Having a committed and engaged Sponsor is fundamental to the success of the event. They should drive their peers and their reports to release the right people for the event; lead the Decision Making Panel to a mindset of approving appropriate solutions and remove roadblocks to implementation.
  • Don’t compromise; if you believe that the challenge is demanding enough to require 3 days and a certain number of participants then don’t settle for less. We did in the early days and always walked away feeling that the event could have been much more successful if we had stuck to our principle.
  • Ensure that the participants care about the challenge; if it is only the leadership who see it as important you won’t get the same engagement and commitment from the participants
2. The Event
  • The ideal staffing for a WorkOut event is a Lead Facilitator plus one Facilitator for each group of 6 participants. This allows the Lead Facilitator to coach the Facilitators, take corrective action during the event, and brief the Decision Makers on the final day.
  • Good logistics glue the event together. Sufficient space, meeting rooms with daylight, breakout rooms close to the main meetings room, service available when requested…are essential to a WorkOut event.
  • We have learned that different cultures exhibit different behaviours in a WorkOut environment and have adapted our facilitation to accommodate this. DMP presentations can be on flip charts (which we prefer) or on PowerPoint - it’s a local issue.
  • In some countries it is essential that the event is conducted in the native language to achieve full participation, but it may be necessary to conduct the DMP in English where leaders do not speak the local language.
3. Implementation
  • Sponsors who show interest and support for Drivers of action plans will see the best results.
  • 90 days is not a long time! Many things can change during implementation, stay flexible!
  • Team Leaders who have not been involved in the event need to be engaged after the event and asked to support the changes their reports will be seeking to implement.
  • It is very effective to use the WorkOut outcomes to engage the wider organisation in process improvement, and to publicly recognise the efforts of the event participants, by issuing a newsletter or some type of communication.

WorkOut is particularly effective when applied to the following types of situations:
  • Staff are performing tasks which are redundant or can be made more efficient
  • Cross-functional process problems have been a common complaint for some time
  • Historical practices have built up over years but now the business is much larger or the customers/products/competitors are different
  • No mechanism exists to develop good ideas from front line staff
  • An area has been neglected for a long time, and little change attempted
  • Processes have been interfaced rather than integrated leading to manual workarounds.
There are many approaches to continuous improvement and not every tool is right for every type of problem, but WorkOut is a hugely engaging and effective tool when used in the right circumstances.