The following outlines the innovative way we used T-groups as a critical component of the strategy to transform the plant recognized by Obama in 2011. The intervention started in 2004 with two major events. The first was a joint T-group with the union executive board and top management. I was referred to the plant manager to help them make operational a joint union-management decision at the top level of the corporation called “Partnership.” With no further definition from headquarters, chaos reigned at the local level. The plant manager had extensive training in the unique T-group model in our Alcoa graduate program. For the union president we could provide references from other union leaders who had positive experiences with us and from steelworkers who attended the graduate program. The decision to begin with the joint T-group was preceded by private conversations with the union president and his board members, along with the plant manager and his direct reports. A one-week T-group then followed, as well as two three-day follow-through sessions, three and six weeks later.
The results of a Conflict Management instrument (Teleometrics International) had shown a strong distaste on the part of nearly all participants to collaborate or compromise. To have a partnership succeed we needed the kind of in-depth training that T-group’s can offer, which enable persons to become more versatile in their approach to conflict. Besides new concepts about conflict styles, T-group training offers existential exploration about one’s affective domain of values and emotions as they are manifested in this unique interactive event! As significantly, in the T-group, participants experiment with new ways of behaving in moments of tension. These are not role plays but real encounters in tense moments in this “safe” group setting. Participants not only become more aware of the positive value in styles they had previously found distasteful, but actually develop new skills to do, when deemed wise, that which had not been available to them before!
The second major event was a cost-improvement project aimed at both reducing costs and increasing production so as to net $15 million. For three days over 100 gathered in a large meeting room where they joined any one of eight theme groups (maintenance, production, human factors (not HR, though some HR personnel joined this group as well as others), quality, purchasing, engineering, etc. It is significant to note that, by design, more than 50% of the participants were steelworkers! We do not do this kind of planning process unless frontline employees are present. We believe they are collectively quite knowledgeable about the day-to-day possibilities for improvement and that their ownership/judgment of the plans developed will greatly determine the success of the endeavor. Involvement in creating the solutions, of course, increases ownership.
The top leaders who had participated in the joint T-group brought to the event a more positive attitude towards collaboration that influenced the workers. Equally as important were new, sharper skills in communication with paraphrasing, specificity, and the ability to raise issues in a non-blaming way resulting in more effective dialogue and conflict resolution. Above all, no time was wasted arguing whether or not this joint activity should be attempted! It was now clear that achieving the goal would benefit all.
By the third morning, each theme group, guided by a very structured process, had a timeline for the nine-month plan. These were merged into a 20-foot master chart (later put on Microsoft Visio to post throughout the Plant), and kept updated by the Project Manager. It is significant that, of the over 100 action items, about half had a steelworker with single-point accountability. They were eager to shepherd actions important to them.
This is but a brief outline of what became not only a highly successful project, but also a great launching pad for the OD strategy and further T-groups throughout the plant. These were considered core to the overall strategy.
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