Businesses grow if, and only if, people grow. Electrolux case study

In many companies, the role of a leader is often confused with an image of a person who has been granted managerial authority from above and who uses “the carrot and the stick” as a means of improving their employees’ performance.

Other times the same word may be associated with the figure of a “naturally charismatic” leader who has their own vision and who can find “followers” to execute their plan – whether it’s reasonable or not.

When we talk about the central and critical role played by each colleague that adds value to a company, the reality is that all Lean transformations are started and fulfiled thanks to exceptional leaders.

Highly effective leaders

Formal authority and charisma can be likened to “useful tools” that make up the efficient leader’s toolbox.

But in the Lean leader’s toolbox there are also many other managerial features and attitudes such as the power of possessing a clear vision, the ability to deeply understand the current situation and the ability to develop problem-solving skills in others.

As we have been demonstrating through our years of experience of the Lean Lifestyle ®, a company’s culture can’t be changed if its leaders’ behaviour and way of thinking doesn’t change first, and companies grow if, and only if, the people inside them grow. If people begin to “become lean” rather than just carrying out lean activities.

Everyone, with the right support, can grow in their own role, enlivening their own working life with greater fulfilment and involvement, embodying actual forms of real leadership, which not only provide greatly improved and lasting business performance, but also ensure a level of emotional well-being and gratification often unexplored by most companies.

When this happens, the real, silent and powerful engine of change is ignited.

All this happened at Electrolux, the Swedish household appliance giant.

Electrolux case study

(adapted from “Toyota Way. The 14 principles for the rebirth of the Italian industrial system” (By J. Liker and L. Attolico, Hoepli 2014))

Busy in an extensive Lean Transformation project, Electrolux’ managers encountered the difficulty and the opportunity of living Lean values in person, ​​as a required condition for a total transformation. The presence of true leaders, who embodied Electrolux’ values ​​and who were able to enthusiastically pass them on to others, was a pressing need felt rather quickly during the Lean journey.

The “Safety First” project, aimed at increasing the level of safety in the plant, was the opportunity that sparked this acute awareness. A need to further reduce accidents and injuries had become imperative, and the technical side of this had already been successfully covered in the preceding two years. The project aimed, therefore, at the behavioural aspect which had not been resolved by traditional methods. The company looking in to how this could be addressed. After some comparisons between members of the Management Team (MT), it became evident that the team itself had to grow in order to fully understand the necessity, share it and in turn explain it and make it clear to others. To achieve this goal, a robust master class activity was created, guided by the Plant Manager and supported by the senior Change Agent. All the causes of accident and injury in the previous 2 years were rigorously analysed and discussed.

This need had to be identified identified from within the group and thanks to this shared information the group independently came to the conclusion that more needed to be done, to educate themselves about safety, first of all, and only then to educate the others.

It took less than two years to reach the plant’s record in terms of security, with a steady improvement of 90% in the TCIR (Total Case Incident Rate)!

This was the first significant step towards the Plant Leaders’ growth. Since then, the Master Classes have been repeated until the groups themselves identify their most urgently felt needs. Staff stability, as well as a reduction in the degree of job rotation – which up to then had been the norm in the company – has made a huge contribution to the development of leaders who manage, and fully comprehend what it is that they’re managing, all with Lean principles.

At the end of 2012, the management team identified that all the leaders at every level of the plant’s organisation needed further growth, so this was a primary objective of the Forlì plant in 2013. Electrolux’ leadership is divided into two macro aspects: Business leadership and people leadership. Recent years have shown how vital it is for these two aspects go hand in hand in order for a Lean transformation to succeed, without one taking precedence over the other. Business Leadership was already an established tradition at the plant, while People Leadership had been overlooked up to that point. This is why the managerial efforts have focused on this aspect.

Awareness and sharing as the driving force for continuous growth.

In the growth of a leader there is also the continuous exchange of experiences: seeing different or similar practices applied to completely different contexts enriches the leader’s arsenal and opens their minds to completely new ideas. Change is a constant, not an exception, and only those who can adapt – by opening their minds – will be able to overcome the challenges. To grow you need to make mistakes, to gain confidence and trust from them, all the while learning from them. It is imperative that each person is the master of the problem they are tackling and that they strive to solve it through self-determination, with the full support of the organisation that is embodied by shared values, with complete respect for people and the work they do.

To this end, the establishment of the “EMS Forum” has proved successful: A fixed weekly mandatory meeting that lasts approximately 1 hour, during which team leaders and operators present one of their improvement activities that has been completed. The presentation takes place in front of the team leaders, employees and members of the management team. Members of the management team then evaluate the activity in terms of leadership, ability to express, results, innovation and extensibility in recognition of those who have excelled in this activity, which serves to underline their personal value and enhance their feeling of belonging to the group.

The week after the presentation, the winner will receive a pennant during a brief ceremony to be displayed on the team info board (BPD 4th level) and a badge to displayed on their shirt. The team which they belong to also has a symbol to show how many of its members have received this recognition in the past.

“In these terms, we have seen how you should not always ask for ROI (Return on Investment) for every initiative that you launch, but you need to be able to to sow seeds for the future, always looking toward the medium-term at the very least. Training for growth at every level always pays off, though not necessarily immediately.”

Fabio Camorani, EMS Lean Manager at EMEA Major Appliances

At Electrolux in Forlì, which has become the Italian flagship of the Swedish multinational, there is a healthy “Lean” awareness of being far from perfection, but at the same time the people at the plant have become aware that it will still be able to grow if, and only if, the people within are still able to continue growing.

Article by:

Luciano Attolico

CEO of Lenovys

Luciano is among the leading experts of Lean Thinking, Lean Lifestyle, Performance Improvement, Lean Lifestyle®   and Impact Innovation experts in Europe. His professional philosophy has people at its heart, leading them to search for methods that can ensure better results with less effort and greater well-being.


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