2 Week Notice: Stop Turnover with 1 Initiative

Robert Brown

Robert Brown

Content Director

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The universal truth is that we all fatigue. Those companies that understand this fact and work around it are able to go the distance. Through trial and error, the John Deere company discovered their Continuous Improvement (CI) initiative reduced turnover and burnout, while simultaneously utilizing their specialists’ downtime to revolutionize the company.

This article will go over how John Deere’s Continuous Improvement program reinvented the factory worker by using workers’ ideas to drive the company’s success.

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Continuous improvement is the commitment to consistent and incremental enhancements that deliver substantial results over time. Continuous improvement process was first popularized as a Japanese business philosophy and now is the topic of many best sellers proclaiming the power of 1% daily improvement. Many corporations like Amazon and Disney have adopted this philosophy and created Continuous Improvement roles that go beyond the scope of quality assurance.

The John Deere Company is one of the first companies to start a Continuous Improvement (CI) initiative and redefined the role of a factory worker. Rather than bringing in a consultant or relying on leadership to make decisions unilaterally, Deere & company planned to increase their innovation by investing in the insights of their front line workers. However, the leadership quickly learned that the ultimate obstacle of continuous improvement is finding a rate that is consistent and avoids burnout. The John Deere company grappled with burnout and an increase in turnover in the first years of the CI initiative and almost called off, what executives today call, “the single most important initiative in the company’s history.”

Mitigating Risk by Reducing Turnover

What Deere & Company realized early with their CI initiative is that the pressure to succeed with leaps and bounds exhausted their workers and caused productivity to decline. Each group of front line workers was tasked with trying to improve their metrics by 5% each quarter in each of these four categories: safety, quality, delivery, and efficiency.

The leadership’s original expectations for the rate of improvement were too drastic and added additional risk to their initiative. The initiative stated that if the group was successful, then each member would receive a pay raise along with a slight increase of their expected rate of improvement. Although the initiative was supported by the union, the workers were not happy. Only a minority of the groups achieved this rate while the others failed or purposely underperformed enough to avoid adding additional expectations, regardless of the pay increase.

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After running a few iterations of this initiative, Deere & Company’s leadership needed to pivot because the results were disastrous. Metrics in all four categories were down and the supervisors reported truck loads of complaints. Worst of all, the senior workers that the leaders were depending on to revolutionize the company were suddenly leaving in waves. Turnover was so high that the leadership was willing to scrap the whole thing.

In an act of desperation, Deere & Company lowered the rate of improvement and locked it at 2% for each quarter. This small adjustment to the rate of improvement made all of the difference. In one years time the leadership saw that all of the categories they measured improved. The trial and error of their initiative proved that gradual improvements, rather than a radical change, drives success.

The company realized that the workers felt undervalued and overworked, but when given the opportunity to improve at a steady and attainable rate of improvement, the workers were able to build up the company to its legendary status. Before the workers felt confined to increasing expectations that would eventually become impossible to reach, but the change in rate made them feet invested and enthusiastic about working above expectations. The company's success became the workers' success.

Directing Growth & Reducing Underperformance

Deere & Company was adamant about increasing engagement in the CI program as much as possible and this proved to be their silver bullets. When the leadership formalized the workflows they were explicit in their instructions. Each worker group has a very specific process from conception to implementation that directs their workflows. All the while CI groups receive support from the leadership team known as the CI GROW. The support from leadership ensured that the workers are focused on innovating.

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The CI GROW team was responsible for monitoring progress and offering resources to ensure success. The Ci GROW teams actively investigated the factors that may impact a team’s output and eliminated as many as possible. The parameters for success were simple: any project completed is considered a success. If a project was unsuccessful then the group conducts a gap analysis to determine if the project can be completed the following quarter. Any projects that were not completed were determined to be outside of their scope, or broken down into smaller projects.

Deere & Company leadership changed their culture. At all of John Deere’s manufactories, every worker is required to join a CI group and participate in the CI program. Each group presents their innovations and successful projects quarterly.

The continuous improvement event serves every department in the company with the mission of “earning the right to GROW.” This slogan is the motto for the conference and the tagline for every presentation. By the end of each quarter, the workers are enthusiastic about presenting and leave the event feeling valued and motivated to continue creating new processes and products that may eventually become staples of the John Deere brand.

In most companies, only the engineering or product teams present their latest enhancements and innovations. For the John Deere company there is no innovation that is too small to celebrate. Each idea builds up the company or replaces a piece of the foundation to reinforce the company’s structure. If it cuts costs then it raises efficiency and that’s worth sharing.

Consider how your company would improve with a continuous improvement initiative or department. The Continuous Improvement team is similar to a Quality Assurance department, but in addition to tracking workers’ performances, they are working across departments to find ways to cut costs and improve efficiency. Offering more representation and buy-in from the other departments will boost morale and encourage every person to look for ways to improve the company. Even if you do not create a dedicated team, your business will improve drastically if the company’s culture is committed to continuous improvement.