I knew very little about Rio Grande when I was hired a little over ten years ago. I learned quite a bit as I went through the interview process, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality of actually working at Rio. It has completely altered my ideas of what it means to lead and how much more I still have to learn to fulfill that ideal. So what makes Rio distinctive? Well, a number of things, but from a business perspective it’s the way we manage our work.
Hugh Bell, President of The Bell Group, Rio’s parent corporation, shared that in the 1960s Rio was a small, family-run business with a very small number of employees, and it was easy to keep track of what (and how) everybody was doing. As the company began to grow in the 70s, folks broke into work groups with supervisors. By the 80s the hierarchy was creating “territories” and starting to slow things down.
Then we heard about Quality Circles. Here was a way for everyone to participate, share their ideas and discuss them until we reached consensus. The circles proved successful and we started seeing results. After joining a group of like-minded companies, Hugh attended a conference and met an industrial engineer who was presenting on Self Managing Work Teams (SMWTs). Ultimately, the engineer ended up as a consultant to Fortune 500 companies trying to implement the idea in one division or another. While we were (and are) much smaller, he was intrigued by the idea of working to implement SMWTs across an entire company and signed on to help us out.
Initially, the goal was to improve workflow enough to process 300 orders a day with about 80 folks. In a few years Rio was processing 900 orders a day with the same number of people. The improvements were substantial, but Hugh and the rest of our Directors felt that our associates’ work would be more effective, fulfilling and rewarding if it was tied to an underlying philosophical foundation.
But what was that foundation, and how would we build it? Check back to see what we came up with in the next post in this series: Empowerment
What ideas have transformed your business?