It Works! People Innovation in the Industry

Anton Refrieger, Construction workers at the Third Power plant, Grand Coulee Dam

Anton Refrieger, Construction workers at the Third Power plant, Grand Coulee Dam

It’s been a blast. A year has passed already since I’ve started getting involved in an amazing people-centric transformation project. Now is a good time to look back and reflect on the progress that happened, what remains to be done, and what I’ve learnt along the way.

As a quick reminder, the intention here is to improve the production of quality products (vaccines) by a large, old, global pharma company. Many change programs have been rolled out in the past that delivered strong results, but also faced “serious limitations”, as explained to me by one of our top industrial leaders:

  • Insufficient impact at shop floor level

  • Very manager-dependent and always relying on the same “key” people

  • We fixed a few processes but didn’t address enough the mindset that would make them sustainable;

  • We fixed what we identified as issues but they were not always (or often not!) what was essential in the daily routines of our associates;

  • The Change dynamic was program-dependent, instead of being a mindset driven by all

Quality leadership wanted to do something different. Instead of trickling down another change program, we created a movement for change. Leveraging the tools and techniques of social movements, powered by the people, “Quality Mindset” combines grassroots and the Management around a shared purpose: making vaccines available to all who want them. Methodological and coaching support is provided by Dr. John Kotter and his team. A strategic use of social media materializes and enables the culture change we aim for.


What will I do differently today, to save more people tomorrow?

The progresses we’ve made so far are fascinating. 3,000 people have already signed up to support our purpose, by working together differently. Some of them now get together in action teams, impacting change they feel are needed, helping each other across functional and hierarchical silos, collectively solving problems. A cross-site team of volunteers is supporting and connecting improvement initiatives globally. Industrial sites and quality management move toward being “servant leaders”. Our Yammer group is booming, with more participants every day, most of them being new to internal social networks. Engagement is on the rise, and performance indicators are improving. People are now associating “Quality” with “Passion”. A new sense of agency is born.

In such a highly regulated and complex industry, where change is usually painful and slow, this is a big deal. The top industry regulators are eyeing our progresses with attention and high interest. Frankly, who would have expected this to come from Quality?


As a personal experience, it’s been an overwhelming journey so far. The “Industrials” I’ve met, from the shop floor to the leadership, are grounded in the reality of manufacturing. Working on vaccine bulk production, or filling and packaging, or on complex data flows, quality systems, machines and technology... in sterile areas, wearing an "astronaut" suit all shift long... in labs or training rooms... at day or at night...on weekends... subject to the uncertainty of a biologic production... They are bonded by the nobility of the product they manufacture, that requires a lot of abnegation and hard work.

Factories are not a fun environment and organizational life can be pretty distressing, but the people and their mission make a rich industrial culture that is fertile ground for innovation. I’ve found incredible, untapped resources of energy and ideas in our factories. If some of the people I’ve met are reading this now, hey, please know: you’re amazing and I’m lucky to work with you.


Naturally, some things didn’t work (yet), or not as much as what we would expect.

It is hard to engage leaders on the enterprise social network. Everyone in the collaboration industry is looking for the clue (tribute to Damian Corbet here) and fortunately we have some leaders who “get it”. The apathy of the others makes me sad, because they are missing huge opportunities for engagement, which is detrimental for the organization. Anyway. It will come.

Out of the five industrial sites we involved in the movement, the smallest one just didn’t get it and nothing happened there. Here again, a missed opportunity for the collective. When things work well and you don’t feel the need for change, you easily fall into complacency. Danger starts here.

Finally, I’ve realized how hard it is to people to spare time for the future. People are absorbed by their daily work and emergencies. Email inbox and meetings dictate everyone’s agenda. People are painfully aware but do little about it. They work long hours to solve problems, and don’t find the time to fix the system that creates these problems.

What's next

Vlaminck, The paper mill

Vlaminck, The paper mill

We still have a lot of work ahead of us, and I’ll be happy to share the developments of Quality Mindset moving forward.

The next steps in our journey include reaching urgency (a critical mass of engaged people = 50% of the workforce) where it has not happened yet, and maintaining it where it’s already here – urgency is an unstable state. We have to make improvements happen by supporting the people who work on them and fighting or bypassing the obstacles to change that pop up all the time / everywhere. We will make the progresses visible internally, to trigger some more. We need enough improvements done so that it positively and significantly impacts quality performance. And we will keep speaking about it externally, so that any organization who is interested can replicate it. Our trigger is not competitive advantage – and keeping the good ideas for ourselves – but purpose: making more people access to the vaccines they need.


As I wrap up this year, here are a few lessons I’ll carry with me:

The industry shouldn’t be shy about people innovation. Unions, regulations, production constraints... are not impediments. They can even be opportunities. They just require more creativity.

There’s no sustainable change without a community of intent – a purpose. This, and additional wisdom, in Ayelet Baron’s last post.

There’s no sustainable change without the shop floor. Nothing serious will happen if people on the line are not involved. How do we involve them? Forget emails and communication campaigns => go talk with them instead! Involve them in the change networks and the co-creation work. Go deep in the organization.

Emotions at work are welcome! We need more! They are key to building relationships at work (thanks John Wenger for a great post), engaging people and improving performance. Rather than the same ever technocrats, rely on your people who display a high emotional intelligence. Use emoticons in your messages. Share how you feel, not just what you understand. I saw tears of joy in one of our meetings and they were beautiful. Someone cried of gratitude. She explained: “they’d never asked for our opinion before”.

Even if your expertise makes you special, don’t hoard it. It is worth transferring your skills to many people. In empowering the volunteers, I sometimes feel I’m sharing skills I’ve learnt the hard way, spending hours after work exploring the web on my own.  But why keep them for myself, when sharing them gets us closer to our purpose? If I want to remain special, well... I have to keep exploring and learning new things.

Stay alert, change can happen everywhere. Don’t be content with a community of innovator fellows. Be continuously on the look for new voices, new ways of collecting stories, new connections.

Have many, many, many conversations. Go on the field as often as possible. Use instant messaging systems for quick 1:1 hellos and social media for random engagement at scale. Change as we do here is very similar to a political campaign, except we’re campaigning for a collective instead of campaigning for an individual. It is as exhausting and exhilarating as a political campaign.

Find people that other people will listen to. The best advocate for change is someone like the people whom you want to embrace change. It is not yourself, not your boss, not the communications department. Don’t pick change agents. Create the conditions, let the engaging leaders emerge and support them as much as you can.

Leadership is essential to the success of grassroots. Grassroots alone doesn’t work. Top managers have more influence than they imagine on people’s behaviors. Speaking about Quality Mindset repeatedly, engaging with people on the social network, allowing volunteers to spend time on improvements... are tangible signs that “it is OK” to work this way. So, we need to engage leaders as well, and help them overcome the fear around the loss of control. By defeating the too-prevalent “us vs them” syndrome, we all win together.