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Testimonial: Phifer Incorporated

Chuck Ziemer is one of Phifer Incorporated’s four continuous improvement facilitators. Phifer is the world’s largest producer of aluminum and fiberglass insect screening products.  He had the following to say about The Effective Facilitator course and how it helped him lead Kaizan events in support of the company’s implementation of Lean Six Sigma methodology.

LSI: What were your goals coming into The Effective Facilitator course?

Ziemer: I was in the process of moving into a role that would have me facilitating company Kaizen events. Phifer recognized the importance of training their people prior to putting them in front of a group.

LSI: What are Kaizen Events?

Ziemer: Phifer is implementing the Lean Sigma methodology. Through Kaizen Events (a Japanese term meaning quick improvement), Phifer creates improvements that are Lean in waste reduction, and strive towards a Six Sigma level of quality. As a business practice, Kaizen Events are designed to make improvements in our overall business that generate both quality and productivity improvements. Each Kaizen event is intentionally focused around specific aspects of improvement and is intended to bring teams together.

LSI: What facilitative skills are imperative to the success of these events?

Ziemer: A good facilitator needs to walk into the meeting room and not only create a sense of neutrality but also maintain that neutrality throughout the session. The easy thing to fall prey to is going into these events with the solution already in mind (because a lot of pre-work is done prior to the event). This is one of the worst things a Kaizen Event Facilitator can do.

LSI: Why is neutrality important?

Ziemer: Facilitating a group using the lens of neutrality enables you to lead the team towards achieving their goals within an atmosphere where no one feels a pre-determined agenda has already been established without their input. Because of this, everyone feels free to voice their opinion and let the team work its way through the process. People respond better and great ideas are generated because participants feel they are part of the decision making process. The goal is to not stifle ANY creativity. Everyone’s input and fresh ideas are welcome.

Several critical success factors must be in place whenever we sponsor Kaizen events (which occur several times each month). Each event is made up of participants from all levels of Phifer. The group includes a combination of shop floor employees, mid-level employees, and upper level management. The model is unique because right from the beginning we strip away everyone’s titles in order to create a level playing field while developing solutions that resolve company issues and can be implemented quickly, with great success. There are participants in Kaizen events who are looking at what is going on within the company strategically for the very first time. These people are coming up with the out-of-the-box solutions that people working on the issue for 15 years haven’t thought about.

We strive to achieve production floor employee buy- in whenever we implement improvements. Problems can arise when, for example, a team of engineers designs a solution but doesn’t run it by the people affected by that decision. This leads to those having to change their systems not understanding or recognizing the significance of doing it a new way. One of the greatest values to come out of Kaizen events is having the entire team involved in the decision-making process. It’s imperative because when it comes time to implement changes, each department knows they participated in the decision-making process and discussed the implications of changing the way they do business. Decisions are made based on their input; everyone feels they are being heard and their buy-in to decisions being made is part of the process.

LSI: Why is consensus among groups so important?

Ziemer: It’s important to have consensus when you start talking about any form of continuous improvement. As a facilitator, it’s easy to spot the people who don’t understand what a consensus does or the importance of gaining it. Lots of people have an opinion on what organizations should try in order to create improvement. With a team concept, if you don’t generate consensus on a specific direction you wind up spending a lot of time spinning your wheels. Leadership Strategies spent in-depth time stressing the importance of this dynamic during The Effective Facilitator course.

LSI: How did LSI’s course help improve work performance?

Ziemer: Taking The Effective Facilitator course prior to moving into this new position facilitated my transition with ease right out of the starting blocks because I was prepared to lead groups to decision-making even before I needed to be.

The work we did in class gave me the confidence boost to take on the facilitative role. I was moving into a position where I’d be working with upper management people a lot. I wanted to have the continued confidence necessary to stand up in front of this group of people and facilitate them.

The course has also helped me remember to remain neutral. Oftentimes I find myself drifting and have to remind myself I’m there to provide a specific role. If participants can’t view me as being neutral, odds are those people will withhold their input, which very well could be the silver bullet that turns everything around.

Generating consensus is an ongoing skill set. There is always a need for a consensus- building exercise any time you facilitate team-based improvement exercises.

LSI: Any added bonuses outside of work you gleaned from taking The Effective Facilitator course?

Ziemer: At the time I took the course I was heavily involved in Boy Scouts and dealt with a lot of situations with parents in my committee chairman role. Any time you are working with someone’s children, you inevitably come across parents voicing strong opinions. Dealing with difficult people was something I didn’t feel strong in. We spent a lot of time on this in The Effective Facilitator and I instantly began using the learned skills in my role in Boy Scouts. It made a measurable difference.

LSI: Any long term bonuses?

Ziemer: It’s important to add that the group of people I took this course with was just as important to the success of the workshop as Richard, our facilitator was. There was an amazing amount of diversity in our group on every level. Diversity brings different perspectives to the table and the impact that a varied group provides causes you to think globally and consider different alternatives when viewing a matter. This makes all the difference when you’re brainstorming new and innovative ideas.

I’m reminded of the leader who once said, “There are 10 of us in this meeting. If the other nine of you are going to do nothing more than always agree with me, I’m going to just fire the 9 of you and do it all myself!” You’ve got to have a diversity of opinions. It’s the backbone of looking at quality improvement with a fresh perspective and a brand new set of eyes.

I’ve led more meetings and sessions now than I care to remember. When folks who know me better than most approach me after the meeting, I often get asked how I learned to do that. I always give two answers.

My first answer is always, “If you can solo ‘Ghost Chickens in the Sky’ in front of 400 Boy Scouts, you can lead a meeting with 15 half-asleep people!”

My serious answer is that Facilitator training gets the credit in my book. It helped not only show me how to deal with the inevitable conflict that we all know comes up, but also helped me understand before actually taking on a facilitation role, that I simply “Can do it”. And confidence in the role of a facilitator is probably more important than any other skill, in my opinion. There is undoubtedly a LARGE amount of skill involved in Facilitation. But like most things, the best make it look easy. I’m not sure I can do THAT yet, but it seems to continue to get easier each time I step up to the plate.

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