Supply Chain Challenge: Getting Employees on Board
The first step in Agilent’s supply chain restructuring strategy was encouraging employee buy-in and feedback through a training and educational platform.
How does a global company become more nimble and streamlined? For Agilent Technologies, a high-tech life sciences, diagnostics, and applied chemical company with more than 12,500 employees operating across three continents, it meant merging three separate supply lines and creating one global supply chain to speed product flow to customers. The most crucial step was educating employees and getting them on board.
Integrating the supply chain was not easy, given the complexities and specificity of the range of Agilent’s products. The Santa Clara, California-based company provides everything from measurement systems for detecting chemical, viral, bacteria, or microbiological contaminants to instruments that analyze and verify evidence at trials. Its customers are laboratories worldwide in six major markets: pharmaceutical, food, environmental and forensics, diagnostics, chemical and energy, and research.
The company started its supply chain overhaul in 2014. The first step: Spreading the word. Henrik Ancher-Jensen, president of Agilent Order Fulfillment and Supply Chain (OFS), and his team embarked on a four-month global tour to talk to Agilent’s community. They held town-hall meetings to discuss the company’s new unified global supply chain strategy, dubbed Power of One.
"We structured the new organization around centers of excellence, which allowed us to introduce new products and leverage existing global processes, tools, and practices in an impactful way," explains Lars Kristiansen, director, head of strategy and continuous improvement for Agilent Technologies. "We knew that training and communicating the strategy to the OFS organization was key for success in execution and buy in."
In fall 2015, Agilent began working for the first time with CorpU, a Philadelphia-based strategy activation company that provides online courses to educate and immerse employees in new strategies, and gather their feedback.
By using the CorpU platform—and its precision tools, procedures, and metrics for both engaging and educating employees—Agilent was able to cut the time to transition from design to implementation for new supply chain strategies from months to just 10 days.
Supply Chain Sprints
Supply chain programs or "sprints" form the core of CorpU’s curriculum. "We start the strategy sprint with top management from around the world," explains Alan Todd, founder and CEO of CorpU. "The purpose of the sprint is to accelerate new strategies and change initiatives at scale.
"The sprint works like an online course that each member of the group works on for 30 minutes daily," he says. "They have information to watch and read. And, they engage in a conversation as we teach them the Power of One strategy.
"The sprint gets people to engage in a dialogue across silos," Todd adds. "Through that dialogue, we move from vision to shared vision. The mistake that many companies make when changing strategy is that they don’t engage their people."
The sprints let groups of Agilent employees gain a fresh end-to-end perspective and share methods to improve planning and forecasting, optimize inventory levels, increase supply chain transparency, and use data to derive insights into customer needs.
CorpU follows up the strategy sprints for department heads and managers with learning sprints for a broader range of employees. Agilent’s first course for employees took 10 days, 30 minutes each day, and centered on building skills and teaching the theories and framework of the new supply chain systems.
"We get hundreds of people talking about what the new strategy means to them and their part of the business, and we identify obstacles or why they are excited about one aspect and not another. Then, we can derive best practices from these discussions," says Todd. "We provide a lot of feedback to the participants and the sponsor. We are able to see where people are engaged and where they connected."
Subsequent strategy sprints are shorter, just five days, and are used for Agilent’s strategy status updates, creating a window into how new procedures and ideas are being enacted.
CorpU studies show that when leadership and management get attached to the shared vision, their enthusiasm rubs off on their associates.
"For a large-scale change to work in a supply chain, you need to build a volunteer army," Todd says. "Teams come to the conclusion on their own that they are committed to the new vision. They are part of the strategy, we asked for their thoughts and feedback, and we addressed their suggestions."
Employees are asked to commit to taking action and to implement the new strategy in their part of the business. They also participate in idea tournaments.
"Employees go from a lot of ideas to a few great ideas," says Todd. "Then they get to test the payoff for these ideas and decide how to implement them. The process is interactive and fun, and it raises the level of engagement."
The platform also lets employees feel heard. "We create an opportunity for each person to contribute their voice. Then management says, ‘I heard you, you have identified some obstacles and here is what we will do about them.’ You can’t believe how powerful that is," says Todd.
Evaluating management and employee involvement is not left to chance or gut feelings. With the scientific rigor of one of Agilent’s own diagnostic tools, the discourse in the strategy and learning sprints is run through CorpU’s natural language processing analytics, a suite of machine learning algorithms that examine and analyze structured dialogue.
Reports from the analysis provide Agilent with a kind of X-ray vision into how its employees understand and think about the organizational changes. "The platform allowed OFS management to have visibility into employee-contributed ideas, challenges, and questions, so they were better able to address employee concerns," says Kristiansen.
"We can see positive or negative language use through sentiment analysis," Todd says. "Then, as we get deeper into the discussion through analyzing the language people use, we look to see if they are using the new strategy’s language. Sometimes management thinks their people are won over, but they are not. We can pinpoint that. Or we can see that some are leaning in while others are not. We help give management early warning alerts."
Initial results from Agilent’s internal staff survey show that 94 percent of the OFS organization understand and support the new strategy and know how they personally contribute to it.
"The main gain of using the CorpU approach is receiving employee comments such as: ‘It’s in our blood now and our decisions are inspired and aligned toward the OFS Power of One strategy,’ and ‘I strongly believe in our future strategy. The journey we are on will give us a victory in the market,’" Kristiansen says.
"Everyone in the organization knows how they contribute to business performance and how they are accountable and responsible," he adds. "This is also reflected in personal performance plans."
Staying on Track
Agilent continues to work with CorpU as it rolls out its three-year supply chain integration plan. Using the CorpU tools has resulted in an 83-percent reduction in the time it takes to launch strategic initiatives.
"Longer term, it is important to have an organization that can adapt quickly to business changes and compliance requirements," Kristiansen says. "Over time, this model has ensured continual employee engagement, enabling management to refine the strategy, adjust direction, and make decisions faster where necessary. We recognize that this journey will only be successful with the right strategy, clearly communicated through continual employee engagement, understanding, and dialogue."
Agilent’s sophisticated product array requires equally sophisticated supply chain methods. "Our ability to execute faster, better, and smarter has led to being ahead of schedule on our current plans; all our major strategic products are more than 85 percent on track," Kristiansen says. "Ensuring effective strategy execution across the entire company is crucial."