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by Norman Bodek

Last July, I had the privilege of running a creativity workshop in Detroit for a group of managers from Technicolor, a Thomson Digital Media Solutions business. While I was speaking, I was confronted by Gary Smuda, director of duplication services in Livonia, Michigan, for Technicolor, who said, "Norman, I've been listening for the past two hours, and I haven't heard anything new!"

At first, I was shocked but somehow held my composure and replied: "Gary, you're absolutely correct. There's nothing new here, but you aren't doing it. You aren't empowering your employees to be part of the creative process."

As you will see from the following interview, Smuda took up the challenge and has since implemented one of the most successful creative idea programs in America. He calls Technicolor's improvement process, Quick and Easy Kaizen TIP.

Bodek: What is your professional background?

Smuda: I've been with Technicolor for 20 years. I actually started in the video business with CBS Fox Video in 1983 and came along with the furniture when Technicolor acquired the Livonia Plant in 1987. I've worked as a tape loading supervisor, duplication supervisor and production scheduler, and eventually became the production manager at the Livonia plant. In 1993, I was sent to the Technicolor plant in the Netherlands to oversee duplication, packaging and distribution operations as part of a transition team. After returning to the United States, I was promoted to director of duplication services in 1996. Just prior to my assignment with Technicolor, I worked for Ford Motor Co. and Toys"R"Us Inc. and served in the U.S. Army as a combat engineer.

What does your group do?

Smuda: We duplicate videocassettes for three of the largest motion picture studios and have, since 1987, produced more than 1.7 billion videos here in the Livonia plant.

Bodek: Please explain the importance of your Quick and Easy Kaizen TIPs process and what it's done for your employees, for Technicolor and for you personally.

Smuda: At first I was very skeptical of all this. In fact, I asked you during the initial workshop, "What's new here?" At the time of your visit, we were into the third year of our lean journey, emulating the Toyota Production System.

One of the major elements of the Toyota Production System is the connection with employees via the company's suggestion program. About six months before your visit, we implemented the Technicolor Improvement Program (TIP) and were soliciting suggestions from our employees. We weren't very successful with our program, and I was frustrated with it. But, before the end of that first day with you, a light flickered on and two strong messages came through from your Quick and Easy Kaizen training: one was to ask the operators what they could do to make their jobs easier. The other was to do everything possible to make the suggester the implementer. If it was beyond the suggester's scope, then make him or her part of the implementation team.

Basically, Quick and Easy Kaizen supercharged our implementation program to help us attain our goal of two written suggestions from each of our employees per month.

Earlier this year, I became the Michigan "Cost Killer"--responsible, at my site in Livonia and the other two sites in Michigan, for capturing cost-killing ideas to reduce our indirect labor cost and nonproduction purchases. Through the TIP program we get many suggestions. In fact, just today I have already gone through 237 TIPs. I spent my whole day going through these TIPs; 65 percent of them have already been implemented, and another 18 percent of them are in the process of being implemented. The rest either need to be bumped up to a higher level or aren't feasible suggestions.

We do try to attach cost savings to some of the suggestions we receive. For example, today I looked at one about recycling office supplies and file folders. We have a standard form we use, called a TIP form, and someone suggested that we just take used paper, flip it over and copy the TIP forms on the back. Some of the TIPs I'm looking at right now are on the back of recycled paper. It's a simple idea that gets our employees to pitch in and help save us money. Our TIP cost savings range from $50 to $200 all the way up to $15,000. And they all add up. TIP has been an enormous boost in helping to reduce our costs and requires very little investment. This system encourages people to participate in improvement activities, to be involved, and enables management to be better connected with their employees.

Technicolor supervisors and managers, including myself, walk around the factory with these TIP forms in our back pocket. During conversations with employees, we write down their ideas and make sure that they get credit for the TIP. One of our more clever supervisors took up the task of increasing our recycling rates. In a group meeting, he held up a packet of everyday office items and said: "How can we recycle this? Remember, every idea you give me is a TIP." He received 30 ideas at that meeting.

Bodek: That's wonderful. What does it do for you personally in your job?

Smuda: When we had our first meeting, I was really skeptical about it. I was skeptical about the idea of actually receiving any TIPs. I was also very concerned about how we would handle the TIPs once we began receiving them. So initially, to be truthful, I was both skeptical and nervous, but then those two lights went on in my head. Now, by getting the suggester involved in the implementation process, I'm interacting with more of my employees. It's helping us to overcome the "great management divide" and opening up other lines of communication between myself and the folks who might have been somewhat nervous about approaching senior management. Seeing ideas come to fruition gives me a great sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride in seeing employees receive credit for their hard work and efforts, and it helps me to make a better connection with my employees, which, in turn, makes this a better place to work for us all.

How does it work?

Smuda: Typically, we'll get a written suggestion, which is first given to the employee's supervisor. The supervisor then reviews it with the employee, and between the supervisor, the employee and the work group, they're empowered to immediately implement it. This happens between 50 to 60 percent of the time. If it requires aid or support from outside of the group, the supervisor will solicit help from the next level of management. Nevertheless, I would say at least 50 percent of the suggestions are implemented within 48 hours of receipt of the suggestion.

Does an idea that's not immediately implemented create a burden on you or your managers?

Smuda: We do have meetings to go over any ideas that are out of our immediate reach. Although there is some management time involved, it's not at all burdensome. In fact, it's one of the easier things to manage. We extract a lot of good out of this program, so we view it as a small bit of time that's well spent.

Who participates?

Smuda: Everybody, including senior management officials. Everyone has a goal of submitting at least two improvement ideas per month. We also track and post our results for everyone to see.

What advice would you have for other managers who have yet to discover the power of this system?

Smuda: Simply ask employees, "What can you do in your workspace to make your job easier?" I believe it was that one question that lit the fire and provided a way to connect with employees. Telling employees that this process was going to make their jobs easier allowed us to make quick progress.

When employees come up with a suggestion, you must act fast to get it implemented. That's the key to prove that you are listening to them and you care. Once employees start to see management acting on suggestions, the suggestions become even more thoughtful because now they're invested in the implementation process.

Another concern for managers might be: "What do we do if we get 2,000 suggestions each month? I can't implement them all." Managers with a large number of employees reporting to them are especially nervous. But empowering employee teams to implement the improvement idea removes the burden from the manager. Unfortunately, empowering employees to be problem solvers is one of the most neglected areas of lean management. Most of us come from past corporate cultures in which managers were the only firemen. Now I have 450 firefighters, and they aren't coming to my door saying, "We have a problem." Instead, they're knocking on my door and saying, "This is how we fixed this problem," which is awesome.

The hardest part of any kind of change is just getting started. Once you get over the initial hump, then it's smooth sailing. That's how it was for us with TIPs initially, but now it's part of our everyday work environment and culture, so it's becoming second nature.

Are there any rewards given to those who make suggestions?

Smuda: Yes, we have several ways of rewarding employees for their TIPs: We have a Bravo award system in which we nominate TIP suggesters to receive a special gift. For suggestions that provide exceptional cost savings, there's a special monetary bonus awarded, and supervisors can award "Technicolor bucks" to employees as a thank you for a special idea.

What effect has this program had on quality in your plant?

Smuda: Many suggestions are process-related, which, in turn, improve the quality of our products. A big focus for us has been eliminating damage to the product while it's inside our plant. Some of these improvements have included eliminating steps whereby a product could potentially be damaged because of frequent movement, improving conveyors and material-handling operations, and designing a new cart for the movement of bulk videotape. Thanks to TIPs, we have virtually eliminated the problem of videotape pancakes becoming damaged by falling on the floor--just by using the new cart design that resulted from a TIP.

About the author

The interview was conducted by Norman Bodek, president of PCS Inc. and the author of The Idea Generator: Quick and Easy Kaizen (PCS Press, 2001). Letters to the editor regarding this article can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.