Targeted Organizational Development


A Case Study

When the CEO of a small company needed to take an extended absence from the business, we helped stabilize the loss of its most important asset by implementing an on-the job, lean-learning approach to coaching and learning.

The situation

A successful rural nursery in North Carolina had enjoyed years of grow in their niche market of production and sales of coastal wetland plants. The existing stable and productive work environment was challenged when the owner needed to take extended time away from daily operations. Upon consulting with and in agreement with the owner before her departure from the daily operations, we agreed to help provide some continuity during this hiatus and once on site provide coaching and management skills training that had been heretofore been long overlooked.

The details

The founder and leader of any small to medium business is so often the heart and mind of the operation. To lose that asset for any period of time can be devastating to the business and to those who work there. Often, the first reaction of owners in a situation like this is to seek out a new talent who is exactly like them and they feel can substitute for them – a considerable challenge in the best of times. 

Prior to her leave, we agreed with the owner not to find her replacement but rather to support and enable the talent already present in the organization.  We advised that how and when that learning was to be delivered would determine whether the content sticks or not.  As any small business knows, the daily, all-hands-on deck environment makes a traditional lecture courses rarely feasible even in the most normal of times.

Instead of traditional ‘training’, we took a holistic approach to learning, that is, to provide the half dozen supervisors a sense of continuity, confidence and stability during the owner’s absence.  With the owner, we jointly agreed that the nursery needed an on-site, measurable approach to learning that would help employees gain job-critical information, such as just-in-time coaching and day-to-day transaction protocol—ultimately reducing risk. In short, we sought to deliver the right knowledge at the point of need, based on each learner’s knowledge level.

The commercial nursery environment is one of extremes  -very cold in the winter and way too hot in the summer coupled with repetitive tasks and long hours. This challenged all those employed. The supervisors, equally involved in the daily labors, were additionally taxed to provide motivational inspiration and task clarity.

This environment made being on-site an opportunity for us to develop close relationships to all we encountered as well as to gain our own understanding of the work. Almost immediately, we found ample opportunity for mini tutorials designed to improve employee and leadership skills, refine communications from “implied direction” to “focused and specific”. We learned when and how to share management tools in real time such as a SWOT, Task Prioritization Matrixes Lotus Diagram and others. 

In a short amount of time, the net effect of this gradual acceptance and integration of tools and concepts was to create a collective understanding of work for the managers and a common language among employees began to emerge throughout the company.

Upon her return, the owner experience a new energy and confidence throughout her staff as measured by the consistent use of these new tools. Managers began talking in more specific terms about their needs and challenges. A new sense of teamwork was evident from the team’s high engagement at weekly meetings.

A new level of work began to take shape over the following months. Where initially, the company was completely dependent on the unique knowledge of the owner, each employee began to increase – and demonstrate -  his or her knowledge. Moreover, their increased confidence and the new cultural norm to share that knowledge gained through years of experience was now being shared freely to others throughout the company. No longer did one single employee or manager possess all the knowledge to keep the operation moving smoothly; instead, everyone shared in its success. 

This improvement was measured most readily in decreased normal company attrition. As is always the case, people come and go. As is common, when talent departed so did their knowledge and wisdom. Our work was to help the nursery capture that knowledge, from every player, so that knowledge was to be passed on and a crisis did not develop with an employee’s departure. 

Additionally, it became a culture norm for managers and staff to utilize ‘lean management’ strategy for solving problems rather than experiencing one problem after another. Measured by their comfort and use of a Fishbone Diagram, the team worked hard to identify the central problem facing the nursery business and underlying each daily challenge.  One such example: The “super problem” was identified as plant health. Everything everyone did every day was to keep the plants healthy to produce a supreme quality product for the customers. It became apparent that everything needed to be captured and maintained in a Playbook where month after month, the daily details of managing everything from plants to systems were carefully recorded. 

The ultimate value of these measures was a cultural shift in this company. Understanding how each employee contributed to the overall mission, measuring and recording that data and then sharing what everyone knew resulted in a team devoted to the company’s success. 

Lesson Learned

There is more talent than we think among people we employ and those that could be employed. The weakness in many companies is that best practices, hard won knowledge and years of experience are not captured for the future. The most often offered reason: "we are too busy keeping up with today’s challenges." Not dedicating time and commitment to capturing knowledge is expensive. But once done, this goes a long way to supporting talented people to do a better job. It worked for this client. It can work for you.

Ellen Colodney