What’s Your Strategy?

Why do organizations pursue awards? It may be to assure their customers, to instill pride in their employees, to ensure the public that past issues have been addressed, or just to be recognized as ‘the best’.

For most organizations, the pursuit of an award is seldom part of the organization’s strategy. It’s usually just nice to receive it. But could there be another reason and could it be strategic? I believe the answer is yes.

I saw the strategy first-hand while working for Milliken & Company for over 40 years. Milliken & Company, a large, privately-owned textile and chemical company, just celebrated its 150th anniversary. While there is much to celebrate now, a couple of decades ago, with the textile industry under siege from offshore competition, Milliken had to change. During this time, our U.S. competitors were shutting plants on a weekly basis. So, what does this have to do with awards?

Quality

As global competition was gaining momentum, so was the emphasis on product quality. We saw it coming from overseas, but we did not really understand it. Quality became a huge differentiator in the market, as did delivering on lower cost. Congress approved the Malcom Baldrige Quality Award and first awarded it in 1988.

When Roger Milliken, then Chairman and CEO of Milliken & Company got wind of the award, he was all in. Just the idea of striving for the award would help make us more competitive. Milliken did not win the first year, Motorola did. But Milliken was a finalist and with that acclaim we received a long list of items we could improve upon. We went to work, addressed the opportunities for improvement, and reapplied the following year. That year Milliken won.

It was a great accomplishment, and companies flocked to Milliken’s headquarters to learn our secrets. Impressive? Absolutely, but Roger Milliken said he learned more the year we didn’t win. The year we lost we were given many things to work on and improve. The year we won  the list was short. There was little opportunity to improve.

The real benefit of the national quality award for Milliken was to make the company better. So, wherever Milliken had operations, they were challenged to aspire to win the highest award. More awards were won— not for the recognition, but to get better.

Safety

Do safety awards make you safer? That’s a fair question. As with quality, Milliken was committed to providing the safest work environment possible for its associates. When OSHA introduced its VPP Star certification for sites, Milliken slowly embraced the idea. As Milliken saw the merits to create a safer workplace, our attitude changed. Milliken was so supportive of the process that the decision was made to certify its headquarters.

This would be only the second headquarters in the U.S. to be certified. With the OSHA auditors on site, Roger Milliken approached them and asked, “what have you found?”  They replied that there was very little. With that he personally challenged them to go back and find opportunities for improvement. During the presentation ceremony, the OSHA representative commented they had never been asked to find more things wrong!

For Milliken, it was never about the award, it was about getting better.

Operational Excellence

The competitive drive was still there in the 1990s. While things were much improved, there was still much to be done. Milliken took to extensively benchmarking best practices around the world.

While on a benchmarking trip to Japan, a team from Milliken’s European operations discovered a very sophisticated system of manufacturing. The results they brought back from the Japanese companies were startling. Over the next two years the company commissioned three more study trips to Japan to thoroughly understand and validate what was seen on the first trip. Each trip confirmed different possibilities for Milliken.

The Japanese companies we visited were all award-winning companies. Most had won the Deming Prize and the TPM Prize, awarded by the Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance or JIPM.  For Milliken, to obtain the results seen in Japan, we would have to challenge for the JIPM TPM Prize, and we did. Milliken had JIPM consultants in-house for nine years and all 56 plants went through the award process and won. Milliken achieved the results seen on the benchmarking trips and won 56 TPM awards in the process.

Yes, the awards made us better.

The Juran Medal

In 2002, the American Society of Quality presented Roger Milliken with The Juran Medal— the ASQ’s highest leadership award. I had the opportunity to accompany him to Kansas City to receive the award. He spent the entire day engaging with scholars and practitioners of all levels. That evening when I dropped him off at his house, with award in hand, he looked at me and said, “You know, I did not go to Kansas City to receive an award, I went to learn something.”

Eye on the Prize

Milliken has gone on to be recognized in innovation, environment, ethics, engagement and much more. Milliken always has had its eye on the prize, but it has not been the prize itself. It has always been something larger.

Craig Long spent the last 40 years with Milliken & Company in many different roles. For over 20 years he was VP of Quality. More recently, Craig started the consultancy Performance Solutions by Milliken, now operating in 400 operations in 23 countries.

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