Management Development ForumVolume 2 - No. 1(99)
Adapting General Electric’s Workout for Use in Other Organizations: A Template
William S. Schaninger, Jr., Stanley G. Harris and Robert E. Niebuhr
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Adapting General Electric’s Workout for Use in Other Organizations: A Template
William S. Schaninger, Jr., Stanley G. Harris, and Robert E. Niebuhr

General Electric is often held up as an example of a well-run, highly successful company (e.g., Kanter, Stein, & Jick, 1992). Readers of the popular business press are constantly served up anecdotes of GE’s success stories (e.g., Cosco, 1994; Quinn, 1994a; Sherman, 1993; Tichy, 1989). Three activities are generally mentioned as being keys to GE’s success – process mapping, “best practices” benchmarking, and “workout” (Stewart, 1991). Naturally, other organizations have become very interested in adapting these activities for their own uses (Quinn, 1994b; Stewart, 1991). Such was the case for an organization that contacted us with a desire to implement a GE workout-type process in their organization. The executive team had read about Jack Welch and GE (Tichy & Sherman, 1994) and some members had even heard Jack Welch speak in person. Yet, they were unsure of what workout would mean for their organization or how it would be implemented. Like most organizations, it was not nearly as big as even a single GE division, did not have as many resources as GE, did not have a dedicated training facility for such endeavors, did not have a tradition of employee involvement in problem solving, and did not have a cadre of high-profile consultants available to it. Nevertheless, the team members’ vague impressions of workout were positive and they had a genuine desire to find a way to increase employee involvement and solve some vexing problems.

Feeling relatively confident that we understood facilitating the processes of problem solving teams, we agreed to help them. Because they were still a bit uncertain if the process was exactly what they needed, the executive team members were particularly interested in the GE “template” of what workouts looked like and how they operated. We knew much had been written about GE’s workout efforts (e.g., Lowe, 1998; Kennedy, 1995; Tichy, 1993) so we assured them we could produce the template they so badly wanted to see. This was the beginning of a frustrating search.

We learned very quickly that workout, sometimes also referred to as town meetings (Cosco, 1994; Kennedy, 1995), was as much of a philosophy and approach to problem solving as it was a technique. We also discovered that much more had been written about the philosophy than had been written about the specific details of the technique. Almost all the descriptions of GE’s workout efforts available to the business and academic communities are anecdotal and somewhat vague regarding the details of the actual process (e.g., Hendricks & Kelbaugh, 1998; Sherman, 1993). Nowhere could we find the “template” our client desired. In fact, most descriptions of workout emphasized the need to modify the specifics for the setting and problem (Quinn, 1994a; Tichy & Charan, 1989).

However, a general template for the process did emerge and had some central features that can be summarized as follows. First, a group of employees (and other key stakeholders as necessary) and their manager meet offsite. Second, the manager charges the group with solving a problem or set of problems shared by the group but which are ultimately the manager’s responsibility. Third, after the manager leaves, the group spends two or three days working on developing solutions to the problems under the guidance of skilled outside facilitators. Fourth, at the end of the meeting, the responsible manager rejoins the group and hears its recommendations. (The manager’s boss is also invited to be present during this wrap-up session). Fifth, the manager has three response choices on each recommendation: “yes,” “no,” or “I have to consider it more” (in which case the manager clarifies what must be considered and how and when the decision will be made). Sixth, the entire activity has strong upper-level management support, and middle-level managerial resistance to the process or outcome is not tolerated. In fact, it is acknowledged in GE that obstructing the efforts of the workout process is “a career-limiting move” (Stewart, 1991, p. 4).

When we shared this general understanding of the GE workout approach with the client organization’s executive team they were unsatisfied. They wanted more details. They wanted a plan. They wanted to know what a workout program would look like for them. They wanted answers to several key questions: “How does workout differ from other problem-solving approaches such as quality circles and task forces that we have used and still use occasionally?”; “What is the job of managers in the workout process?”; “What kind of problems can workout best handle?”; “Who participates in workout and how are they chosen?”; “What is the outcome of a workout session?”; “Why are outside facilitators needed?”; “Where should the workout sessions be held?”; and ultimately, “Is workout right for us?” These questions probably are representative of the questions most organizations would have when considering whether or not workout is a technique they want to adopt. Responding to these questions forced us to build a more complete template of the workout technique. In addition, in our efforts to help our client organization implement workout, we learned quite a few lessons about the specifics of having a successful workout session (of which we had several) and about institutionalizing the approach in the organization (which was not successful).

Although the workout technique must ultimately be tailored to a specific organization’s circumstances, the template we have developed and the lessons we have learned in attempting to implement that template offer a starting place and insight into the workout process that consultants, academics, and managers will find useful as they consider offering, studying, and/or implementing a workout-type program.

The Workout Template
We found that the easiest way to design a template of a workout-type process that responded to our client’s questions was to focus on the timing of events central to the process. The key steps of our resulting template are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The Workout Process Template
  • Executive Team Commitment to Workout and Its Cultural Implications
  • Workout Program Introduction
  • Pre-Session Activities
    • Identify the facilitator(s)
    • Select problem domain
    • Select and prepare management sponsors
    • Identify potential participants
    • Prepare participants
    • Prepare the groups represented by participants
    • Select and prepare the site
  • Conducting the Workout Session
    • Workout introduction and team charge
    • Team problem-solving activities
    • Presentation to responsible manager
  • Post-Workout Period
    • Sponsoring manager’s role
    • Executive team’s role
    • Participant’s role
    • Facilitator’s role

The first two steps in the template address organizational issues that are important for the initial positioning of the program and for sowing the seeds of its longer-term institutionalization. Without these first two steps, long-term acceptance of workout is unlikely. As we note later in our discussion, it was these two steps that we failed to emphasize enough with our client organization and that failure ultimately undermined efforts to capitalize on the early success of specific workout sessions conducted. The remaining steps all focus on the unfolding of a specific workout session. In the discussion of the template steps that follows, we provide answers to our client’s questions and take opportunities to share some lessons we learned as we helped them implement the process.

Executive Team Commitment to Workout and Its Cultural Implications

It becomes clear fairly quickly that, in its purest form, the workout process as used by General Electric both reflects and reinforces an underlying culture emphasizing speedy problem solving, broad-based employee involvement and empowerment, open and direct dialogue between managers and subordinates, accountability, and continuous improvement. In many ways, what separates workout from other group-based problem solving efforts such as quality circles, process improvement teams, and task forces are some of these cultural values (Ashkenas & Jick, 1992; Quinn, 1994a). For example, workout emphasizes speed (solutions generated and decisions made in the matter of a few days) and managerial accountability (managers own the problems and must respond immediately and decisively to team suggestions) much more than some of the other techniques. In addition, because workout teams exist only for the short term, opportunities for participation in a team are greater over time than in some other team-based, problem-solving approaches.

A decision to implement workout is a cultural decision and should not be taken lightly. It represents a cultural intervention designed to enhance the empowerment of employees and the openness of management to their ideas. It is designed to create a culture where “paralysis by analysis” (Quinn, 1994b) is taboo. If executives are not committed to such values, they should not embrace workout as a technique.

Workout programs are not inexpensive endeavors. Most organizations will lack the internal facilitation skills needed to help a group solve problems thoroughly and efficiently, at least at the beginning, and will want to follow GE’s example of using outside facilitators. In addition, the organization will have to pay for facilities, not to mention the payroll costs of a sizeable group of people meeting away from work. The executive team must be made aware of these costs and encouraged to weigh them against the benefits to be gained from addressing the firm’s recalcitrant problems and the reinforcement of the values described earlier.

Workout is a hot topic and has gotten lots of good press. Some organizations may want to implement it for its faddishness. Unfortunately, a half-hearted foray into workout that is allowed to wither and die probably does more to undermine the values of empowerment than never implementing workout to begin with. We learned this the hard way. Despite some initial success and a general commitment by the CEO to the values of workout, enthusiasm for workout faded within the executive team; members lost the will to push it or follow through with the accountability for the implementation of solutions. Steven Kerr once described workout as “unnatural acts in unnatural places” (Quinn, 1994b, p. 59). Our client assumed that workouts would be so overwhelmingly successful that they would gain a momentum all their own. Unfortunately, culturally unnatural acts seldom easily gain momentum and require constant reinforcement and tending.

Workout Program Introduction

There seem to be two viable alternatives for introducing workout to the organization. An organization may decide to strongly “sell” the program from the outset, before any workouts have occurred. Or, following the GE example, the organization can decide to wait for a large-scale introduction effort until after it has conducted several successful workouts that can be used as examples of the program’s potential (our client chose this approach). Either way, the effort must be widely publicized.

The executive team must “sell” the program internally. It is particularly useful if the management team differentiates workout from any other similar efforts in the organization. It is helpful to emphasize that the program represents an emphasis (or re-emphasis) on workout-consistent cultural values. If the publicizing comes after some preliminary workouts, as was the case in our situation, these experiences (and hopefully “wins”) can be used to communicate the nature, goals, and outcomes of workout.

Generally, we suggest that, prior to announcing the program to all employees, efforts be made to “sell” the program to those mid-level managers and supervisors who must ultimately own the process and the outcomes of workout. It is not a good idea to blindside them with a general announcement first. An important component of the executive team’s efforts to persuade the rest of management must be an emphasis on the utility of the approach as a tool to generate solutions to vexing problems the organizations faces, the executive team’s commitment to the program, and the fact that all managers will be held accountable for working within the dictates of the program.

With workout, employee participation is crucial to success, so getting an initially positive message to them is vital to the acceptance of the program (Larkin & Larkin, 1996). This message may be delivered via a variety of conduits. Employee newsletters, meeting agendas, and/or workplace displays (e.g., posters and signs) would be appropriate means to convey to the employees that the workout program is being launched. We found that one of the best ways to communicate the nature of the program within the organization was sharing the outcomes of the first workout session. The “presenters” of this information were one of the sponsoring managers of that workout and some of the workout participants.

Unfortunately, in retrospect, we realized that we did not help the organization create a strong education/information campaign within the organization after our initial workout success. The effort to share the outcomes of the first workout did not go beyond the primary work unit targeted by the workout. Despite being highlighted at several management meetings, at times it appeared that not all of the executive team, much less the rest of management, either understood or bought in to the workout approach. On several occasions, it became obvious that outside of the people assigned to the initial workout, very few organizational members were aware of what workout was. This certainly limited any grassroots discussion of the project or broader organizational support and commitment. The big lesson for us in all this is that successfully introducing workout requires an integrated communication effort that has to be based on executive-level commitment to the program and its cultural implications.

Pre-Session Activities

Identify the facilitator(s). One of the features that distinguishes GE-style workouts from many other group-based, problem-solving approaches is the use of professional facilitators external to the organization. Facilitators can be brought in only to facilitate sessions with the executive team or a consulting group leading the initial effort to commit to and introduce the workout program. Or, as was the case for us, a consultant can be asked to help implement the overall program and provide facilitation for specific sessions.

Although one is sufficient, we found that having at least two facilitators who work well together for each session was desirable. Facilitating is hard work and such an approach allowed one facilitator to take detailed notes while the other ran group problem solving; it also allowed them to work with subgroups simultaneously. Feedback from participants indicated that they strongly supported the use of outside facilitators because of the efficiency they helped create and the impartiality they possessed regarding the problems being discussed.

The facilitators ensure the group’s efforts are focused and efficient. The group must feel free to disagree, discuss, explore, and problem solve in a short, intense period. Facilitators manage the process while participants focus on content. Following GE, we feel that initially facilitators should be external, but as the process becomes more natural (or culturally accepted), internal facilitators can be used if provided the appropriate training and experience.

Select problem domain. The issues addressed by workout can be broad, such as improving productivity, increasing customer satisfaction, and reducing costs in a particular area, or more narrow, such as improving the waiting experience for customers (Ashkenas & Jick, 1992). The ultimate key to the success of any workout session is the manager(s) who “own” the problem being addressed. This ownership is always enhanced when the sponsoring manager actually requested the workout. Our client requested problem submissions from their managers to be reviewed for the workout initiative. However, in some cases the impetus for a workout may come from upper-level managers who see a cross-functional issue that workout could address. In these cases, it is important to spend extra time preparing the management sponsor for the upcoming workout.

Select and prepare management sponsors. Workout sponsors put themselves on the line by turning over a problem to the workout team and having to respect (but not necessarily approve) their recommendations. For an organization with a traditionally bureaucratic culture, this step can be extremely stressful. For that reason, the choice of the sponsoring manager is probably as important as the choice of a problem (in cases where the problem is specific to one work group, the manager and the problem are necessarily selected at the same time). For this reason, it is our belief that early workout sponsors should be those managers who embrace the concept of employee empowerment and desire the opportunity to sponsor a session so that these sessions can serve as models for other managers of what is possible and the benefits to be gained. It is also possible that a workout session can have co-sponsors. Two of the workout sessions we facilitated for our client dealt with problems occurring when two departments interacted. In both cases, the managers of those departments cosponsored the workout session.

Once a manager who desires to be part of the process has been chosen or once a problem and the appropriate manager has been identified, education can begin. Preparing the sponsoring manager should begin with casting workout as a tool that the manager can use to get insight into solving problems for which he or she is ultimately responsible. Of course, this tool must be powered by sharing information completely and honestly about the problem with the group and a willingness to seriously consider its recommendations. This tradeoff may be an anxiety-producing situation, especially for managers who have had the workout process thrust upon them by the organization. Lowe (1998) captures some of the potential tension sponsors face in the remarks of one GE sponsor:

Sometimes, as a manager at workout, you feel foolish, like, “why didn’t I listen to this before?” Some people have this perception, “gee, if I sit on the hotseat and if I’m insecure about taking someone else’s idea, instead of coming from me, it’s going to look like I don’t know what I am doing.” You have to get over this mindset. I never felt intimidated; I always felt invigorated. (p. 133)

The sponsoring managers must be instructed on how to encourage the process. It is extremely important that the managers not create an environment in which employees believe that retribution is the reward for participation in workout. Finally, the managers must be provided with information about the overall process and their roles in it. They need to see the big picture as represented by a template such as the one we offer here.

Identify potential participants. Participants can come from across levels, functions, and work areas. It is important that efforts be made to have all groups that are involved with a problem domain be represented. In our very first workout session, the group was continually confronted with the fact that it was missing information about a small, but significant part of the work process it was trying to improve because the group responsible for that part was not represented on the team. Ideally, participants would fairly represent the group from which they were drawn. Care should be taken not to select only those individuals with which the manager feels comfortable. Care also should be taken not to try to select only malcontents. In later workout sessions (once the process is established), participants can also come from suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders. Selection of potential participants should be a collaborative effort between the management team and the sponsoring manager with facilitator input. It is also important to consider the work schedules of potential participants, particularly if critical areas must remain covered during the workout sessions. Once potential participants have been identified, the sponsoring manager should contact them, tell them about the planned session, and invite them to participate. In our view, it is important that the choice to participate be voluntary. Often workout participants will be dealing with problems that will affect the activities of their coworkers and they have to feel that their participation in such sensitive activities is not coerced.

Prepare participants. Participants need two forms of preparatory information: information about the workout process itself and information regarding the problem issues to be addressed in their particular workout. Ideally, as part of the effort to publicize the workout effort, employees will have had an opportunity to attend sessions describing the workout process and have had training in problem-solving tools such as process mapping. Some sort of general introduction to the program should occur and the management sponsor should further clarify the nature of the workout effort when asking the individual to participate. Unfortunately, in our experience, we found that relying on the sponsoring managers to contact and educate participants on the workout process is unreasonable if the sponsoring managers are themselves somewhat in the dark about the process. After conducting several workout sessions, we believe that a “manual” should be prepared for the participants. This manual should contain the information identified above – details about the workout process, problem-solving models, and data specific to the problem domains they will be asked to address.

Ideally, participants should also be trained in the problem-solving process and be familiar with tools such as process mapping and cause-effect diagrams. However, such intensive preparation is often not economically feasible in many organizations, including our client’s. In those situations, the role of workout facilitator becomes more important and the facilitator has to guide participants through the problem-solving process and introduce appropriate problem-solving tools when appropriate.

In addition to providing information about the process, participants must also receive any relevant information pertaining to the particular problem their workout team will address. Any data pertaining to the problem are particularly useful. Participants should have this data at least a week before the workout session to give them time to prepare and begin thinking about the issues. Concerning the data provided, quality is preferred over quantity. Initially, the facilitators should assist the sponsoring managers in identifying appropriate data content. One of the sponsoring managers in an early workout bombarded the participants with three-inch notebooks full of survey data and normative rankings. Although incredibly specific, the data lacked a coherent link to what the employees were being asked to do. In general, the participants complained that they were overwhelmed by the quantity. An “overview” approach to providing information may be the most useful. In this manner, the participants can get the gist of the information while still having access to the voluminous data if needed.

Of crucial importance is the charge given to the workout team. Managers should make clear to the participants the problem or issue they are being asked to work on and the bounds within which any solutions they recommend must fall. (If there are budgetary or other constraints that dictate acceptable solutions, participants must know them.) It is crucial that the charge make it clear that the workout is not just a gripe session or a wishing session. This is not to say that creativity is not desired; it is. However, the charge must inspire the participants to address issues within the problem domain and within their purview. In one of our early workout sessions, one of the sponsors told the group that this was the opportunity to really get creative and generate the ultimate “wish list.” Unfortunately, this charge to the group left us as facilitators continually trying to refocus the group on solutions that were economically and practically feasible.

Prepare the groups represented by the participants. One of the major mistakes we made early on was not ensuring that the broader groups affected by a particular workout were made aware of it. Of course, publicizing the workout process to the whole organization should familiarize all employees to the process in very general terms. However, we found that, without our intervention, employee stakeholders in problems that were slated to be addressed by a workout session were rarely aware that such a session was going to happen unless they had been asked to participate. Drawing participants from a group and then leaving those behind in the dark about what is going on creates two problems. First, there is the possibility that the uncertainty generates mistrust in the process or its purposes. Second, by not letting others in a group know that some of its members will be participating in a workout focused on a specific problem area, those individuals are deprived of the opportunity to discuss their own concerns and ideas with participants before the workout.

Select and prepare the site. Initially, workout sessions should be held off-site, to minimize interruptions and signify the importance of the activity. No ties or suits! It is not necessary to be far off site; no overnight trips are necessary. Nevertheless, the goal is to eliminate any temptations of leaving to check on activities in the organization. Participants should not be too accessible or find the organization too accessible for them. It is a good idea to make sure the meeting facility is reasonably comfortable and has large tables on which to work. It is also a good idea to have a telephone and organizational phone book readily accessible in case the group needs to call someone for information germane to its problem-solving activities.

Beepers and cellular phones should be discouraged. We learned of their disruptive capabilities all too well during our first workout. One of the participants would routinely go to the back of the room to communicate with his/her subordinates about ongoing operations. These interruptions were very disruptive to the flow of discussion and problem-solving activities.

In addition, flipcharts, tape, markers, notebooks, pens, pencils, etc. should be provided to the participants. Food and beverage should be available. To provide a break during the session, a separate area for lunch and breaks is encouraged. From our perspective as facilitators, break and lunch times provide an opportunity to witness first hand the interaction dynamics between the various work groups represented by the participants. During an early workout, the participants who worked in one unit avoided the staff from the other unit during breaks. This was an indicator of an issue that later came out during some problem-solving sessions. The members of the first work group felt the participants from the second group did not appreciate the difficult circumstances in which they worked.

Conducting the Workout Session

At its core, workout is typically a process whereby teams of employees spend two or three days together defining, analyzing, and solving clearly-defined, specific business problems. (Some workouts may take longer due to problem complexity and scope.) Due to budget and time constraints, all of the sessions we facilitated for our client lasted two days. For the majority of problems this proved adequate; for some, an additional day or half-day would have been desirable.

Workout introduction and team charge. This step, which occurs the morning of the first day of the session, sets the stage for the remainder of the meeting. First, participants, including the facilitator(s), introduces themselves. Everyone should have a name placard. Second, the workout process and the facilitator’s role is explained. Depending on the level of preparation the participants have had, we have provided up to one hour of “training” on the workout process. (By following the suggestions outlined in the “prepare the participants” section, this step could be avoided.) Third, the manager responsible for the problem meets with the workout team to remind the members of their charge, outline the team’s responsibilities and latitude, and recommit to looking forward to its recommendations and help in addressing the problem. Then the sponsoring manager leaves.

Team problem-solving activities. These activities consume the bulk of the time devoted to the workout session. The facilitator helps the team get organized (generally, the larger group is broken up into several smaller teams), defines the problems outlined by the charge, and helps them understand underlying processes (through process mapping, where appropriate), and separate causes from effects. Once mapped, the process can be scrutinized for specific problem areas and a ranking of these problems (in terms of importance relative to the charge) ensues. In particular, the facilitator(s) will guide the team in distinguishing between problems that are fairly easy and those that are more difficult. As necessary, the team is also coached on brainstorming, process mapping, flow charting, fishbone diagramming, etc. It is important to remember that management has selected the problem domain. The employees are to stay focused on this domain but have discretion in the order they address the subcomponents of the problem.

The team’s outcomes are a set of recommendations complete with implementation plans. We found it useful to provide the workout team with a stack of forms with space at the top to identify the specific problem or problem cause being addressed and under that columns for recommendations, costs of recommendations, and implementation suggestions. At the bottom of the form was space to identify the benefits of the recommendations. Recommendations can be immediate, short term, or long term in nature. The team may decide to recommend more analysis of a particularly complicated problem. In such a case, the team may recommend the creation of a task force and suggest the appropriate team members and timeline. In all cases the team should attempt to assign costs, project timetables for the accomplishment of its recommendations, and project the expected benefits of these recommendations. It is often during this portion of the workout that a work session ends. We have found it particularly useful to keep process maps and problem listings posted around the meeting room and to start each morning after the initial meeting day by providing participants with typed copies of the recommendations that were arrived at the previous day. Reviewing the previous day’s success seems to give a boost to the following morning’s activities.

Presentation to responsible manager. A half-day should be reserved at the end of the workout session for the responsible manager to come back to meet with the group and hear its recommendations. The responsible manager’s boss can also choose to attend the session. (Before workout is institutionalized within the organization, this is recommended.)

After hearing each recommendation and getting any desired clarification, the responsible manager (not his/her boss) can give three responses. If the response is “okay,” the manager clarifies when it will be done and by whom. If the manager does not approve a recommendation, the climate of the meeting requires that the reasons be explained to the workout team. If the manager cannot make a definitive decision about the recommendation, s/he must explain why and clearly identify the next steps and timeline to be used to facilitate a decision (Stewart, 1991). This open environment produces a level of accountability for the sponsoring manager that would not be present if the employees making suggestions were not present to hear the response. For those recommendations that receive a “yes” answer, implementation plans with assignments and timetable are finalized. Implementation plans include details of who does what, where, and by when.

During several of our workout programs, well-thought-out plans for implementation were agreed to, but the responsible manager did not have the authority to give approval to all that the plan would encompass. Thus, there needed to be post-workout meetings with other managers who were not involved in the workout. As facilitators of the process, we often found ourselves attempting to maintain the spirit and integrity of the recommendations with managers who did not spend time with the workout team. If recommendations are rejected or altered by higher managers, efforts to inform team members of the change and rationale behind it are important to retain the integrity of the process.

The probability of having to go beyond the sponsoring manager for approval is positively related to the size of the problem and negatively related to the level (in the organization) of the sponsoring manager. Problems assigned to workout can be wide spanning to start with or they can be discovered to be wide-spanning during the early problem analysis stages of the workout process. The wider the problem becomes, the more likely that managers who are not part of the process will have their area of responsibility addressed in the recommendations of the workout. However, if the sponsoring manager for a workout occupies a higher level position in the organization, there is a greater likelihood that the areas addressed in the recommendations may still be under the sponsoring manager’s purview. The response to this problem (assuming the occurrence of these meetings is not desired) is to select participants who represent all areas affected by the chosen problem domain and to ensure the sponsoring manager is at a level at which approving recommendations will not be problematic.

Post-Workout Period

The post-workout period is a critical point in this process. Fresh from the high of intense, empowering, problem-solving sessions, the participants will return to their respective work groups. At this point, the credibility of the program is at stake. The participants will undoubtedly discuss with coworkers what recommendations were made. Failure by management to follow through on these recommendations will doom the process immediately. In order to facilitate action-oriented behaviors after the workout, several roles must filled by sponsoring managers, participants, and facilitators.

Sponsoring manager’s role. The sponsoring managers must take on the role of solution implementers. They must see that those recommendations that were accepted are implemented and those recommendations on which a decision was postponed are addressed as promised. Throughout the process, the sponsors must make sure that workout team members are apprised of progress. It is also the duty of the sponsors to see that data germane to monitoring the success of recommendations are collected and reported. Early sponsors also have a responsibility to help use the results of their workout to communicate the nature of the program throughout the organization.

Executive team’s role. The role of the executive team is to ensure that the sponsors are held accountable for implementation and that the sponsors do not violate the spirit of workout by retaliating against participants for their suggestions. In addition, executives must clear the path to successful implementation when other areas and individuals outside the sponsors’ spheres of influence are involved.

Participant’s role. At the presentation to the sponsoring managers, recommendations that are accepted are assigned to individuals. In most cases, primary responsibility for implementation went to sponsoring managers. However, specific aspects or tasks of each recommendation may be delegated to members of the workout team. In addition to helping implement solutions, team members must also serve as conduits back to their respective units regarding the workout experience and the problem domain. Following the workouts we conducted, it became clear that several team members became strong advocates of change with their peers. Team members should be advised that their peers will have questions about their experience and asked to justify their recommendations. Team members should be advised to be honest and forthright in responding to those questions.

Facilitator’s role. If the facilitator is just the facilitator of the workout session, this role usually ends with ensuring that a typed report is prepared describing the workout, who attended, the problem domain covered, and the recommendations for each problem, and the sponsor’s reaction and implementation plans. This report should be distributed to the sponsor, executive team, and participants. However, if the facilitator is involved more heavily in the overall implementation of the workout effort, more follow-up activity is required. In this case, providing the sponsor and executive team help in planning and conducting meetings to monitor progress on the recommendations is crucial. Throughout this process, the facilitator(s) must encourage the executive team to hold management sponsors accountable for progress, and encourage the sponsors to take responsibility for implementation. If the executive team has failed to commit fully to workout, one clear sign will be continual reliance on the consultant/facilitator to prod sponsors to follow up with implementation promises. If this begins to occur on a regular basis (as it did in our situation), the facilitators must reinforce to the executive team and sponsoring manager(s) that reliance on external facilitators sabotages the process. For workout to be successfully implemented, executives and sponsoring managers must be willing to address lack of follow-up on the workout recommendations as they would any other performance deficiency. Finally, the facilitators should help the client explore options for data collection to monitor progress against the expected benefits identified by the participants.

Implications for Implementation

For those interested in applying a workout-type program to their organizations, one lesson should be clear: Workout is a process, not just an event. Our experiences indicate to us that facilitation of the event is just one step in the middle of an overarching process that includes those in and out of the actual workout session. We believe that hiring skilled external facilitators is not enough to guarantee a successful adoption of this process. In retrospect, we assumed that our client was more committed to the process and ideals than was actually the case. While most companies do not have the munificence that GE does, they do have the most important asset – human capital. Implementing workout is more about generating and securing a commitment from management to foster a culture emphasizing employee participation in problem solving and accountability for its implementation.
After searching for information on workout and then attempting to implement it in a client organization, we believe we can say the following: This template is intended to provide building blocks for those interested in workout. It is not a blueprint for all. The template and the accompanying lessons learned do provide a guide for those willing to take a journey on a process that may yield significant rewards (as evidenced by the success experienced at GE, and to a lesser extent the successes experienced by our client). If an organization is not committed to this process for the long run (i.e., nurturing the process until it is institutionalized in the corporate culture), it may best be left alone so as not to become a “program of the month” and to contribute to the damaging of organizational credibility.


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William S. Schaninger, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Management Department at Auburn University. His research interests include organizational change programs, social exchange networks, managerial communication, and health-care management. He consults professionally through the Gamma Consulting Group, based in Auburn, Alabama.

Stanley G. Harris, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Management at Auburn University. His interests include organizational change and transformation, corporate culture, individual cognition and problem solving, team building, group facilitation, and organizational assessment.

Robert E. Niebuhr, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Corporate Relations for the College of Business at Auburn University. His research and teaching activities include leadership processes, behavioral aspects of decision making, and the influence of individual differences in attitudinal/behavioral interactions.

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