A global solution Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

When Kevin McMullen looked at his company back in 2008, he saw a company that needed more consistency in the way it did business.

What a customer experienced in an Asian office of OMNOVA Solutions Inc. might vary from what a customer got in one of OMNOVA’s European or North American offices. McMullen, chairman and CEO of the technology company, also saw best practices that were trapped in silos within the organization and information needed for critical decisions that wasn’t making its way to the right people.

As a result, he and his leadership team set out to create a more unified company that would use the same integrated approaches across the globe. They dubbed it “One OMNOVA.”

The first steps were laying the foundation for change. SAP enterprise software was installed to facilitate the transfer of information across the organization and a Six Sigma approach was adopted that allowed the company to simplify, standardize and streamline common processes.

“Initially, when we rolled out the One OMNOVA concept, it was a way to leverage resources in a very practical way across functional areas,” McMullen says. “But it quickly took on a deeper and more significant meaning. I think our employees have embraced it as the ideal for working together across departments, across job functions, across business units, across what has become a more spread out global operation.”

McMullen wanted to remove any obstacles that hampered the $696 million polymer company from reaching its potential.

“In order for us to achieve our full potential, we have no room to really have boundaries get in the way,” he says. “So, it is helping support, I think, our growth strategies, as well.”

The concept would create familiar corporate values and get everyone working together across the world.

“You could be in Fairlawn, Ohio, or London, England, or Shanghai, China, or Bangkok, Thailand, and those core values are the same in every location in our company around the world,” he says. “So, this One OMNOVA concept of having unifying core values is very important there, as well, so that [when] you as a customer come to see us in Shanghai, you feel like you are treated and served the same way there as you would be in one of our facilities in Pennsylvania.”

Develop the vision

If you want to be successful rolling out a major change, you need to get input from all levels of the organization when creating it.

“A very important part of that is to get buy-in by the leaders and ultimately the entire organization of what that vision is so they are part of implementing it,” he says.

“It would be very common for me to touch base with a couple of people and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ We’d discuss it and debate it, and through that discussion and debate, we’d come to what we think is a much better product, if you will, a much better answer, and then we roll it out to a larger group and test the thinking and the logic with them, as well.”

McMullen and his leadership team would meet with a cross section of employees in small groups of two or three, which included plant managers, a few business product line leaders as well as general managers and those in human resources.

“It was not scientifically chosen,” he says. “It was kind of just a cross section of the organization to get a sense for, ‘What do you think about this? Does it make sense to you? What if it doesn’t? Let’s talk through that and see if we can help clarify or change to make it better.’”

When you get input from lower levels of the organization, pay close attention to it, and if that input is given directly to you, show that person you appreciate the input.

“Be open-minded, show respect and all the things your mother taught you when you were young,” he says. “They absolutely are critical here — show empathy. If it’s the first time you’ve met someone and they haven’t had the opportunity to interact at more senior levels of the organization, they are probably going to be nervous. If there are things you can do that will make them feel at ease, you’re probably going to get them more comfortable to share their thoughts with you.”

You can also phrase your questions to the employee so they know their input is needed, and they aren’t just being asked to reinforce what is already a finished plan.

“The foundation that you build with each interaction is critical and then kind of setting the stage of, ‘We readily admit this is not perfect,’” he says. “‘There are many things that can be improved on it. This is a start. It is a work in progress. Please don’t take it as cast in stone. What we would like in this discussion is to get your reaction to it and to get your ideas for how to make it better.’”

What McMullen discovered in this process is that the company was already practicing some principles that made up One OMNOVA, but the practices weren’t formalized.

He was able to get more buy-in by building off some of those practices, which helped others understand what the company wanted to accomplish.

“The idea of working together across the company was already happening in other areas,” he says. “So, I can point to that as an example of where we are already doing it as a way of trying to illustrate where we were trying to go with some of these other areas.”

He would have never discovered this advantage if he hadn’t sought feedback.

“If there was one thing I could say in terms of advice, it’s get a lot of people involved,” he says. “You’ll get more buy-in, and you’ll end up with something better than you would have had if you huddled in a room with you and one or two other people and tried to craft it just on your own.

“I’m convinced that we are far better having a group that is pushing and testing and asking what-if questions to help improve the vision, than if it was just me doing it on my own.”

Communicate with resisters

After rolling out any major change, you will still need employees to buy in to the finished product.

Inevitably, you are going to run into employees who won’t embrace it. You have to communicate with those resisters to find out what they don’t like about it, because they could have some valid points.

“The first step is listen and try to understand the source of the resistance because there may be some really good ideas that are embedded there that, if you just dismiss it out of hand, you will not benefit from,” he says.

“People are generally trying to do the right thing and are interested in the organization succeeding, so if they have a strong reason that they think this is the wrong thing, I sure would like to understand why that is. Now I may disagree on that, but I’d like to understand what it is because maybe we are about to drive off the cliff and we didn’t even know it, and this person has the great insight to tell us.”

Take the same open-minded approach after the vision has been rolled out that you used during its formation. Chances are, you didn’t get it perfect even if you received a lot of input from all parts of the organization.

“Give it a legitimate consideration and then follow what your best instincts are as to the direction to take,” he says. “If, after understanding it, you still disagree that that approach is wrong or that resistance is not well-founded, then I think you need to take some time to try to explain it to the areas of resistance as to why you think going this way is better.

“In many cases, people will then understand or give it a shot at least. They may not be the leader of the charge, but they may at least give it a shot to see how it works. If it’s working elsewhere in the organization, most people will come along with it.”

Find a common ground with the resister and explain to him or her that everyone involved wants what is best for the organization, and if plan A doesn’t work, you will try plan B.

“Try to get some buy-in from the stand point of, ‘Aren’t we all trying to shoot for the same objective here? Yes, we may have different ways, but let’s just find mutual ground that we are all trying to get to the same place,’” he says.

McMullen doesn’t have a hard and fast rule on how long to give someone to adjust.

“You use your judgment, but I think one thing I learned back in a prior life is you also have to keep in mind that you are responsible for the success of the entire enterprise,” McMullen says. “If there is some part of the enterprise that is really getting in the way of the organization moving forward, then it’s your responsibility to deal with that.”

But you should work to get the person on board because firing someone might cause more problems and take more time than trying to work with them.

“You have conversations like that before you come to a decision that we have to part ways,” he says. “Because if the person has other things to contribute to the organization, you don’t want to simply part ways because there’s a different point of view on this particular thing if there is a chance that you can get them on board with the idea.”

However, if an employee is really holding up the rest of the organization, you may have to let that person go.

“That’s the tough things that leaders have to do,” he says. “But I don’t think you start there. I don’t think you want to have a culture where ‘Joe, over there, disagreed with the path we were taking, so he’s no longer with us.’ That will be the last time you’ll get a dissenting view on something.”

McMullen says the One OMNOVA concept is still a work in progress because there is always room for improvement. But the sooner you can get people on board, the sooner you can work out the kinks and get the maximum out of the change.

“We spent enough time to get the concept right, and then we rolled it out and we will continue to improve it going forward,” he says. “Our view is, perfect is the enemy of speed. So the faster we can get it out there and work on it and make improvements from real-life situations and experiences the better, as opposed to spending months and months and months polishing it up before we kind of roll it out to the organization.”

And remember to keep spreading the message at every turn.

“Like a lot of things, you can never overcommunicate, and this is one of them,” he says. “Try to be clear on what the key concepts are. Try to simplify, and I don’t think you can repeat yourself too many times.

“I think continuing to stay focused on the same message is critical to getting that across to the organization. It takes more than once. It’s just human nature that they will not understand and embrace something by just one iteration.”

How to reach: OMNOVA Solutions Inc., (330) 869-4200 or www.omnova.com