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Human Resources: Part of the Team

Continuous improvement tools move out of the plant.

Alignment drives an organization. It guarantees that people understand company objectives. Alignment has the effect of creating teams that work together. From a human resource perspective, teams help us develop our people, reach business objectives, and serve internal and external customers.

At Alcan Packaging Food Americas, a flexible-packaging company with 23 plants across two continents, we leverage teamwork using continuous improvement (CI) concepts, tools and teams to create alignment, deploy policy and drive excellence.

Implementing CI to reach HR goals might seem strange to those familiar with the process. Traditionally, manufacturing-operations personnel used CI to identify production efficiencies and improve process management. It’s a discipline that relies on measures and results. In the HR environment, where we deal with issues surrounding employee relations, measurement may seem impossible. It’s not. When you consider basic CI goals -- process excellence and alignment of strategic objectives -- you realize it can also guide HR.

Bring on Improvement

I started in HR at American Can -- a predecessor of Alcan Packaging -- in 1978. I left American Can in 1984 when the business unit I worked for was divested. I returned to Alcan Packaging in 2001 as vice president of HR, after working at increasingly challenging HR jobs in the aluminum and water industries. The company I came back to was not the company I had left. I was surprised at the lack of cohesion and direction in the HR department. We needed a road map to get HR staff and plant HR managers to share goals. I knew little about CI, but the company’s manufacturing function had long relied on it and achieved results. So I talked to that department’s head to see if we could apply the skill set to my HR issues.

Working with our CI “champion,” Curtis Anderson, we formed a cross-functional HR steering team and trained the team in CI. We set long-term strategic objectives, as well as annual initiatives, around HR issues including:

  • Improving plant safety.

  • Developing a performance management system.

  • Expanding awareness of the company within our local communities.

  • Getting HR professionals to “buy into” CI.

This last issue was crucial to the department’s performance, but a tough one. Initially, the CI concept was met with suspicion and thought of as management’s latest “flavor of the month.” Indeed, staff members had seen management philosophies come and go. We needed to overcome this skepticism and build trust.

Bill Gleason, Alcan Packaging’s director of labor relations, became a convert. “The HR community was cautious about CI,” Gleason admits. “Many of us weren’t sure how useful it was for HR. Some also felt that it was yet another mandate from corporate.” He says no one in HR doubts the usefulness of CI anymore, adding, “It has helped us create new processes and refine numerous existing processes.”

One of our first initiatives, creating an online, intranet-based HR portal, helped us win acceptance of CI while achieving goals. The objectives for the HR portal were to improve employee communication and access to benefits and to reduce administrative burden. We created the portal team using field HR managers as team leaders. Our field managers work at remote manufacturing plants and are on the front lines of recruitment, development and retention. By giving them ownership of CI, we created tremendous enthusiasm and built a stronger community of more than 60 HR professionals serving 5,000 employees in North America, South America and New Zealand. This portal became Alcan Packaging’s clearinghouse for benefits information, open enrollment, orientation, policies and procedures, training, and more.

A Belt for Everyone

Alcan Packaging’s CI commitment has grown. We have hundreds of CI projects every year, in support functions as well as manufacturing -- leading to millions of dollars in savings and value. They include:

  • A companywide knife-safety project that reduced employee lacerations.

  • A Toronto project that reduced the plant’s water consumption by 80 percent.

  • A waste-reduction process at the Neenah, Wis., plant that eliminates 21 truckloads of waste annually.

Our president, Mike Schmitt, has made a commitment to have every employee trained in CI. They attain CI ranks ranging from “white belts” for hourly staff, to “yellow belts” for salaried employees, to “green belts” for supervisors and managers.

In the HR department, we continue to deploy CI. It is effective for addressing social networking, college brand awareness, training, work/life balance and trust building.

Our new seven-person Trust Team of HR personnel from the field and the executive office was launched after Alcan Packaging’s global employee survey revealed gaps in trust between managers and employees, particularly among operations workers and at certain plants.

Through our survey, employees told us that trust was critical and Alcan Packaging had room for improvement. The team recently completed its charter, defining scope and expected outcome. The charter compares cost of implementation to overall benefits, ensuring positive return on investment. Team members will identify precisely how employees define and view trust in the workplace, and milestones will measure the group’s progress.

The team currently develops an action plan, pulls research and conducts focus groups at the plants. Whatever the results, they will be in step with Alcan Packaging’s vision of a positive workplace and an engaged workforce. Success will be measured when employees reveal their opinions about trust in the next survey.

Link Strategy to Results

The Trust Team was created as part of a project identification and selection process. At a workshop, our HR team identified emerging issues -- such as trust and baby boomers’ projected retirements. Initiatives to address those issues align with strategic objectives -- and even individual goals -- as detailed on a so-called “X-matrix.”

On other CI teams, HR representatives work with employees from other departments. On our college campus brand-awareness team, for example, HR professionals work with people from purchasing and marketing.

Continuous improvement creates an energy that makes the process exciting and my job rewarding. Working in a CI-infused culture, we focus on alignment -- direct, demonstrated alignment of day-to-day activities to corporate goals. With CI, HR professionals have the tools to improve communication, clarify expectations, measure real performance and mobilize our people.

The author is vice president of human resources at Alcan Packaging Food Americas in Chicago, a business unit of Alcan Packaging.

Alcan Packaging Food Americas

Products: Multinational manufacturer of flexible packaging.

2007 revenue: $1.4 billion.

Ownership: A business unit of Alcan Packaging, a business group of Rio Tinto Alcan with headquarters in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Top managers: Mike Schmitt, president and chief executive officer; Michael Curia, vice president and general manager, Food and Specialty Flexibles; Gene Welsh, vice president and general manager, Meat and Dairy Flexibles; Curtis Anderson, vice president, Continuous Improvement; Diane Frisch, vice president, Human Resources.

Employees: 5,000.

Locations: 23 plants in North America, South America and New Zealand.

Connections: Chicago, (773) 399-8000;


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