Category Archives: Certificate Program

The Need to Own It

I have written here often about some of the cooperatives with whom we work and, especially, the remarkable people encountered in these organizations.  Along the way, I have shared descriptions of some of the tools that we have shared with Nica partners (like Open Book Management and Lean principles), because many rural producers have become convinced of the need for organizational strengthening.  It should be no surprise that Winds of Peace Foundation regards these tools, and others that encourage inclusiveness and participation, as key to sustainable organizational strength.  So do many Nica partners.  But thinking that something is true does not automatically prove that it’s true.  So I decided to share some data about ownership that has recently been published.

The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) has published a new study of employee-ownership in the U.S.   Now, the U.S. is not Nicaragua, and employee stock ownership is not cooperativism.  But the results cited in the report focus on enterprise ownership, owning the business and social equity of an enterprise, and that definition encompasses an entire spectrum of stakeholder models.  And this is a portion of what the study has found:

*Enterprise-owners in this dataset have 33% higher median income from wages overall. This holds true at all wage levels, ranging from a difference of $3,160 in annual wages for the lowest-paid employee-owners to an extra $5,000 for higher-wage workers.

*Median household net wealth among respondents is 92% higher for owners than for non-owners. This disparity holds true for the great majority of subgroups analyzed, including single women, parents raising young children, non-college graduates, and workers of color.

*Enterprise-owners of color in this data have 30% higher income from wages, 79% greater net household wealth, and median tenure in their current job 36% over non-employee-owners of color.

*For families with children ages 0 to 8 in their household, the ownership advantage translates into median household net worth nearly twice that of those without employee ownership, nearly one full year of increased job stability, and $10,000 more in annual wages.

The report is full of additional data which supports the organizational value of ownership; take a look at it for lots of details. But the picture being painted here is one of many colors: organizations that involve their workers as owners are more successful;  greater opportunity comes from ownership; greater participation through ownership yields greater strength and organizational growth; there is a central tendency in us as human beings to nurture and protect that which we own.

Concurrent with the publication of this groundbreaking study was the publication of Fortune Magazine’s 2017 100 Best Companies to Work For.  Of the 73 corporations recognized for their outstanding workplaces, more than half of them (35) incorporated ownership plans for their members.  It’s hardly a coincidence that many of the best companies to work for are companies owned, in whole or part, by the employees or members themselves.  (The Fortune list is traditionally weighted heavily toward technology and healthcare providers; the preponderance of ownership would presumably be even higher in a more representative sample of U.S. businesses.)

There is no mistaking the fact that Nicaraguan cooperatives are owned by their members, in at least the structural, legal sense.  But like their U.S. employee counterparts, Nicaraguan owners need the understanding of what ownership is, of what their ownership obligations and rights are, and how their success truly rises or falls based upon the members taking responsibility, collectively.  Successful ownership is not reliant upon heroes or the efforts of the few or the presence of a beneficent patron.  Success follows a basic understanding of how their cooperative works, how A+B=C, and importance of each member to the whole.

So when the third Certificate Program is convened in August, there will be modules about family strategic planning and access to markets and means of improving production and quality.  But at its core, the Program will be about ownership, seizing the opportunity for self-improvement by embracing both self and collective responsibility.  We’ll be there to help conversations about Open Books and Lean, but the days will really be about our partners’ futures, and their appetite to own it….

 

Dormilona

The Bashful Plant
The Bashful Plant

While visiting a Nicaraguan farm one Sunday in September, just before the start of the Certificate Program, we hiked some of the property with the owner of the land, Ernesto, along with several of our Nicaraguan colleagues.  His is a small-but-diverse operation, where he has raised beans, corn, coffee, cattle and cacao for his entire life.  Walking the plot of land, even briefly, was a great enjoyment.  I’m always amazed at what grows in sometimes-suspect soil, and how creative farmers have to be with the logistics of five crops growing on very limited acreage.  But the plant that commanded my attention was not one planted in straight rows or intended for harvest.

As we walked to the grove of cacao trees, one of the family members bent over and pointed to a tiny plant growing wild in the pasture.  The stems of the plant were no more than an inch or so in length, with delicate leaves symmetrically extending from each side of the stem.  Though the plant was not in bloom, I was told that it boasts a beautiful pinkish flower.  The stems were all over the area, like some special ground cover that I might see in a backyard where I live.  The plant is called dormilona, sometimes called the “sleeper plant” or the “bashful plant.”  For when its tiny leaves are even gently brushed, they immediately close up like the pages in a book.  It’s a fascinating response to observe, as though the plant is either ticklish to the touch or so shy as to be physically introverted.  The leaves eventually unfold again, once they are sure that the intrusion has passed.  The experience of touching the plants and observing their response is oddly addicting.  And I had it in the back of my mind at the start of the workshop.

On the following day, the Certificate Program began with each of the 40-some participants- class members, presenters, hosts and guests-  introducing themselves to the rest of the crowd.  This is an interesting and instructive process, however routine it may seem.  For within these brief statements of “who I am,” we get perhaps our first opportunity to meet each of the individuals with whom we will be sharing an entire week.  It’s a quick gauge of personality and perspective to guide the interactions to come.

It’s not unusual for members of a group like this, in any country or setting,  to be a little hesitant or even shy about speaking up; many of us are “hard-wired” to be cautious about how much we reveal of ourselves until we’re sure that the surroundings are safe.  It’s better to venture forth slowly, lest we jump into waters way over our heads and we suddenly discover that we don’t know how to swim.  And particularly with rural Nicaraguans, many of whom have not spent much time in the presence of visitors, the tendency is to be reserved and quiet.  (Unless you’re like the ubiquitous “Juan,” one of whom seems to be in every group, wisecracking and joking from the start!)

Nonetheless, we always start with these introductions, not for the completeness of what they can tell us, but for the brief glimpses of who is in the room.  On this occasion, it’s what started me thinking about the dormilona plant once again.  It seemed to me that there were many in our group who, when their turn to introduce arrived, were clearly humbled to even offer their names,  standing in withering modesty, almost turning inward upon themselves, so tangible was their bashfulness.  I thought of fragile green leaves, folding inward for protection until threats had passed.

During the ensuing week, the dangers must have dissipated, because the Program participants opened up in ways as beautiful as those little green, flowering plants which covered that Sunday hillside.  We came to recognize each member for the capacity which he or she brought to the week.   The participants were engaged and energized, and full of the ideas that could make their week successful.  Indeed, by week’s end when the certificates were awarded, each individual was recognized for his or her own particular character and contribution, and there was nothing bashful about it.  Only a sense of accomplishment and some pride.

Working alongside the Nica participants during the Certificate Program was not unlike interacting the dormilona plant.  At first touch, palpable humility showed itself as a “folding inward” for many.  But with time, the folded arms of shyness gradually reached out to embrace what was good in the environment, to soak in the essential components of well-being, whether personal of group.  It’s a universal truth, though one that we seem to forget the next time we find ourselves among strangers.

Maybe I make too much of the dormilona and my fascination with its gentle ways.  But I have found its character enormously attractive, and worth spending my time on….

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Example

During the recent Certificate Program conducted at the foot of Peñas Blancas, participants were able to study the methodologies of Lean Continuous Improvement, a practice designed to remove waste of all forms from our daily work.  It’s a very precise process improvement technique, thus one that is not quickly or easily assimilated by most people.  As a result, teachers of this process, which really involves transforming the way one looks at everything in a new way, frequently use examples to illustrate the concept.  Our Lean leader for the week, Brian Kopas of FabCon Precast, selected examples which would be familiar to the rural Nica audience and yet demonstrative of the ideas of Lean.  One example that week stood out .

The story is of a successful conference center which, among other amenities, includes on-site lodging accommodations, a beautiful setting, exercise opportunities, and a full complement of meals for their clientele.  It’s an operation that has sought to constantly make improvements in the range and quality of its offerings, so an attempt to streamline kitchen operations and meal services seemed like an obvious initiative.

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The “Before” Diagram

The kitchen staff gladly accepted the participation of several observers from outside the enterprise, to make notes of wasted time and motion, to document actions and capture the flow of work and the demands upon the staff members.  Using the Lean tools of observation and measuring, together they created a pictorial  snapshot of the breadth of the kitchen staff work for just one meal of the day.

The visual was shocking, to say the least: each one of the colored lines in the photograph represents the travel of one of the staff members in preparation of one meal.  It turned out that the staff members were walking miles within the confines of their kitchen, and most often incurring the high mileage as a result of inefficient placement of materials or redundant movement.

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“After”

The graphic example provided an immediate blueprint for improved customer service and timeliness, less strain on the staff and better care of kitchen implements and ingredients. Upon actually seeing what a morning preparation looked like, the staff members and their outside “helpers” set out to remove as much of the wasted time and energy as they could, cleaning up the process so that it looked more like that to the right.

Granted, the travel lines were not drawn in this “after” diagram, but the open spaces in the drawing were indicative of the clean-up that was possible, all in the course of a few hours of observation, discussion, modeling and decision-making.  (It didn’t hurt that these particular Lean practitioners decorated their “after” diagram with flowers along the edges, either!)

The example resonated with the participants in the Certificate Program, partly because the topic- cooking and eating- are very familiar and important activities.  In part, they understood because they recognized what those spaghetti-style travel lines represented in the way of excess steps and the drain that such extra movements create during the course of a day’s labors.  They could identify with the notion that there is opportunity for improvement in even the most repetitive, everyday kinds of activities.

But most of all, they attendees could identify with the example because it was of their own making.  Because the example described above was one of the three Lean projects actually undertaken during our week at the conference site at Peñas Blancas.  The “students” grabbed the Lean concepts voraciously, asked questions about process steps, immersed themselves in the work of the kitchen at 5:00 one morning, making themselves part of the the morning’s business, quizzing the kitchen workers, empathizing with difficulties and frustrations likely never before observed.  When they had applied the tools that Brian had provided, they went steps further, preparing written analysis and reasoning for proposed changes, estimating the impacts and the costs of such alterations, and even adding the beauty of those wildflowers along the border of their diagram.  (I have never seen that before!)  The best example of the entire week was the one that the Nicas produced themselves.

The reality of our time spent with participants on the topic of continuous improvement methodology is that they not only absorbed the ideas, but ran with them,  embraced them as though they were hanging on to lifelines in a relentless storm.  Even as newly-initiated to Lean, they added their own signatures to the results, thereby further underscoring the notions of continuous improvement.  Indeed, I have witnessed few Kaizen projects, in my own company and of even longer duration and study, that were as exhilarating as this one.

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Preparing the Ideas Visual
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Inputs from Everyone
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Brian’s Teaching Absorbed

It’s an example I intend to use in the future, with other groups of curious learners.  And it’s one that will utterly dissolve any excuse that the concepts are simply too difficult for some folks to apply.  What a week….

 

The Five “Wise”

During the Second Certificate Program in rural Nicaragua, held during the first week of September, participants were escorted more deeply into the worlds of open book management and Lean process improvements.  Having experienced a taste of both methodologies in the First Certificate Program, conducted last year, producers expressed a desire to know more about the concepts and how to apply them.  These programs are all about organizational strengthening, and these two initiatives are as important to organizational health as any strength-building efforts.

For teaching Lean, the Foundation enlisted the expertise of Brian Kopas, of Fabcon Precast in Savage, Minnesota.  (Brian was an important presence at Foldcraft Co., where he honed that company’s storied strengths in continuous improvement.)  Brian’s expertise and inviting demeanor won over the Nicaraguan participants thoroughly as he introduced the elements of Lean.  And among those elements, Brian asked “why?”  A lot.

Asking “why” is one of the core tools employed in any Lean implementation, and maybe especially so in an environment where tradition and culture play such a big role in defining activities and protocols.  So Brian was quite specific in encouraging his audience to ask “why” at least five times before settling on the root cause of any problem in need of a fix.  To do otherwise was to simply assume the reason for a difficulty, which can lead to missing the solution due to not knowing the real problem!  “Drilling down” to the real cause of a difficulty requires discipline and patience, but leads to a much better identification of the root cause of our pain.

It’s not a usual practice for anyone, and certainly not for rural Nicaraguan producers, who have followed the habits and traditional wisdom of past generations.  Think about it for a moment, as in this hypothetical sequence: your production of coffee in this cycle is down.  “Why?”  (Your initial observation might be that a fungus has infested part of your crop.) You might go no further in your analysis and respond by destroying your plants and starting all over again, in hopes that in the next cycle you will be luckier.  Instead, Lean would have you ask “Why” has the fungus attacked.  The answer this time is that the fungus affects coffee plants that have not been fully protected by proper nutrients and care.  “Why?”  Because there have been insufficient resources to purchase all of the necessary inputs for a successful crop.  “Why?”  Because the limited resources available were used for discretionary spending by each producer, rather than partially contributed to a general coop fund for a collaborative “emergency” response to threats.  “Why?”  Because the notion of an effectively-functioning cooperative has been lost over the years, and the organization has come to be seen as simply an access point to outside funders.  After five “why’s” we might see the fungus disaster in a new light, a problem of institutional purpose and not one of plant biology.

The Certificate Program attendees became pretty good at asking the five why’s, though it’s not as easy as it may sound.   As is true with most tools,  it only becomes effective with practice.  But over the course of our week together, participants were playfully (and effectively) asking “why” about nearly everything, a process that gradually made it clear to them the importance of the question.  The hope is that the exercise becomes a habit, and then an actual tool for eliminating many of the pains of their work lives.

A treatise on the use of the “five why’s” in the Certificate Program might seem like an odd entry for a blog topic here.  But in observing the impact of the tool upon the newly-introduced, it dawned on me that the process, in fact, isn’t just for the agricultural producer or factory worker or office administrator.  The process of asking “why” takes us closer to the truth of whatever issue might be complicating our lives.  Our human tendencies to jump to conclusions, without seeing the full extent of the issues before us, often lead us to wasteful and even dangerous end results.  Seeing the true, underlying causes of our difficulties is the first step in finding solutions, to becoming truly wise.

Many rural cooperatives in Nicaragua are disintegrating.  “Why?” Because they have limited access to financial and learning resources. “Why?”  Because they are perceived to be poor risks for credit and education investment.  “Why?”  Because development agencies have little knowledge of and relationship with them.  “Why?”  Because the effort and cost in traveling to rural sites to listen to the peasants’ own analysis of circumstances is too great.  “Why?”

Good question….

 

Jesus At the Table

I readily admit that I’m a person who looks forward to what’s next.  I am a person of immense and continuous gratitude for what is in the present, but I’m also excited about what might be around the next bend, the next corner, the following day.  And I think I became that way as an outgrowth of the realization that amazing and unexpected things are always coming our way.  Stop for a moment and think about all of the happenings of the past week that we never anticipated, how they have impacted us individually or the broader world in which we live.  Good or bad, those events were unknown to us last week at this time.  I’m good at enjoying today; I’m great at anticipating tomorrow.

During the recent Certificate Program in Nicaragua, I absolutely loved presenting open book management materials to our rural attendees.  But with each module over three days, I couldn’t help but feel anticipation for what the next module would bring, so that the participants would see the ideas building upon themselves.  And on the last day of open book materials, I was already eager for them to embark on a Lean journey of continuous improvement, building upon the open book foundations being laid.  (For the uninitiated, Lean is essentially the removal of waste within work processes, creating labor that is safer, faster, more productive and more efficient.) And by the end of the week, I was eagerly anticipating everyone’s return home, where they might discover application of the elements taught.   But I didn’t even need to wait.

Just one day into the material on organizational Lean methodology, the waiting was over.  As the day came to a close, as participants departed for recharging themselves and the Program facilitators gathered up their materials, Jesus stepped forward.

Jesus is a member of GARBO Cooperative, the host location for the Program.  GARBO is frequently where we gather for workshops because they have facilities for long stays and accommodations for meals and meeting space.  Jesus is therefore a frequent face at gatherings, whether as a full participant or as a curious passer-by.  On this occasion, Jesus had joined us as a workshop member.  He is a diminutive presence, standing perhaps a hair over five feet in height and a slender build to contribute to a boyish look belying his years.  His initial shyness is vintage Nicaraguan, but it quickly dissipates in the face of a driving curiosity and friendliness.  His classmates tease him by saying that visitors to GARBO always wish to take him back home, such is his charisma and boyish demeanor.

Jesus came forward to ask a series of simple Lean questions: why, he wondered, are the presenters using such a small table for their work?  The table surface is much too small for the projector and materials, and the presenters have to store their copies and references in other places, either on the floor or on an adjacent table.  Why not use a larger table surface, maybe with some shelving beneath the top, that would allow for easier access, less travel and a better flow of presentation?  In fact, wouldn’t that idea be an example of putting Lean improvement to work?

We looked at each other in astonishment.  Away from the earshot of the other participants, just a few hours into the material, at the close of a day in which we could only hope that some of the ideas of planned innovation might sink in, Jesus had come forward with an absolutely perfect application of Lean.  Better still, he offered the observation to the very ones who had been encouraging the use of observation and application!  His suggestions fit the definition of Lean improvements exquisitely.  Maybe of greater importance, the lessons presented had clearly been received; we had no need to wait for the following days to know whether the concepts were viable to this audience.

I think our immediate joy caught Jesus off-balance.  He did not anticipate that his simple observations would create such an excited reaction from his North American guests.  We immediately asked him to share his insights and ideas with the entire group on the following day, as everyday examples of where to find waste and how to envision its elimination.   The width of his smile at our recognition reflected his own dawning sense of achievement and acumen.  Imagine the moment: the student steps forward in demonstration of his understanding by no less than coaching the teacher, and the teacher, having successfully planted a seed, witnesses its immediate germination.   Plans were set in motion on the spot to create the table of Jesus’ design.

Yes, I love the anticipation of whatever’s next.  Because there is good reason for great expectations from this journey we’re on.  Even our moments of disappointment and disillusionment are filled with the possibilities of redemption.   There is always excitement ahead, and I can hardly wait to see what is to come….

Where’s Your Treasure?

Among the lessons emerging from the Certificate Program in early September, we heard wisdom in many different forms.  The Certificate Program, by design, has a very holistic feel about it, a compendium of thinking on topics as diverse as growing and commercializing crops, understanding gender issues more deeply, seeing the environment as a fragile home, leadership, followership, organizational and personal health, and spirituality in work.  The September edition narrowed a bit, though still rich in wide-ranging matters.  One topic struck me as particularly interesting, given our Nicaragua location and the peasant participants at hand.

In the course of our time together, we were introduced to an allegorical tale of sorts, one that was intended to stir our thinking about what matters to us, what holds value and is therefore worthy of our time and energy.  The tale is presented here:

A couple was walking down the street, when they noticed a man under a street lamp, looking for something on the ground.  As they approached him in order to help, they quickly determined that he was drunk.  But they asked him, “Sir, have you lost something?”

“I lost my gold ring,” was his reply.

The couple helped him look for a long while, until they grew tired and frustrated with the fruitless search.  The couple asked him, “Are you certain that you lost it here?”

“I am sure that I did NOT lose it here, but over there,” he said, pointing to a darker area nearby.

“Then why are you looking here?” they asked him, wondering if they had not heard him correctly.

“Because the light from the street lamp doesn’t reach over there, but only here!  Can’t you see that?” he responded in a surprised and challenging tone of voice.

The story elicited a wide range of perspectives and interpretations, all of which added insight to the tale; the attendees gave the story some serious consideration as they tried to discern its lessons.  But for me, one conclusion stood out above the others.  In short, it was the question of “where do you seek your treasure?”

It’s not a new question.  But in the rural mountains of Nicaragua, where the basic economics for living have been hard to sustain, where availability of food depends far too heavily upon the vagaries of weather and blight, and where populations might well be excused for seeking gold under seductive bright lights, I did not anticipate the consensus answer to the treasure-question that emerged.

Their first, tentative answers tended to be the seemingly obvious: the man was wasting his time- and that of others- by virtue of his irresponsible drunken condition; he  needed to understand the importance of a clear mind; treasures lost might never be found again.  Then the responses became more reflective: the man was searching in a place that would never reward him; the easy way is not always the best way; sometimes you must discover your own treasure, your own truth, by yourself.  And finally, the lessons became personal, philosophical: we too often seek that which is of greatest value in the wrong places; burdens are made easier when encountered in the light; in searching for that which we think will bring us wealth, we just may discover something else of even greater intrinsic value.

For rural Nicaraguan producers, who face some of life’s most difficult challenges, the story had become all about understanding values, where to look, how to look, how to reconcile what we might wish to be true with our actual truths.  I find myself still marveling at the honesty of their thinking and analysis of their truths.  For, it’s an easier exercise to tackle when one’s basic needs have been met and one has the luxury of contemplating things like self-actualization.  It’s a more profound conclusion to reach when it’s not just an exercise….