Category Archives: Open Book Management

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….

 

Cooperativism, a means for an arduous peace in a space of ‘conflict’

Cooperativism, a means for an arduous peace in a space of ‘conflict

René Mendoza Vidaurre[1]

War is the continuation of politics by other means.  Clausewitz (1780-1831)

My husband and son were killed in the war. I was left with a little bit of land. The cooperative was like my husband. I supported myself in it to raise my children. E. Terceros, producer, cooperative member, Nicaragua.

The stronger the sons and daughters are, the stronger the parents will be. Proverb in Rural Central America

War and peace are the continuation of politics by other means, we would say, hoping that Clausewitz would agree with the addition “and peace”. Countries with wars that sign peace agreements experience a period that De Sousa (2015) called “post peace accords.” It is a period of the continuation of conflict where different development paths clash with one another, and where associative organizations are an expression of that, and have the potential to make a difference. Under what conditions do associative organizations contribute to peace? What alliances are needed to make a difference? This text responds to both questions from the reality of war and peace that Central America experienced over the last 50 years.

[pull down full article here]

[1] The author has a PhD in development studies, is an associate researcher of IOB-University of Amtwerp (Belgium) and a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (http://peacewinds.org/research/) and member of the COSERPROSS Cooperative R.L. rmvidaurre@gmail.com. This article, for now a draft, will be the basis for our presentation in the Peace Prize Forum to be held in Minnesota (September 2017).

 

 

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….

Acts of Commitment

The hiatus here over the past couple of weeks has been the result of spending time in Nicaragua, participating in the second Certificate Program for development of rural producers and their counterparts in commercialization and credit.  With so much information and context to consider, reflection and writing are crowded out in favor of absorption.  Seven days of presentations, applications, ideas, questions, analysis, laughter, sharing and learning (from one another) was consuming.

I’ve had ample time to sort out my various reflections about the week spent among the rural participants, and I’m sure that some of those images will show up here in the weeks to come.  But as I recall the week in its entirety, there is one observation that rises to the top of mind above the others.  It is the matter of commitment.

Imagine for a moment what it would require of you to leave your home and your work for six full days (eight if you count travel to and from the conference site) to attend an educational workshop.  To further complicate the matter, the work that you will leave behind will not be performed by anyone else.  It is time-sensitive work, agriculture, which will consider no excuse if it is not done on time.  It is your only livelihood.

The conference site itself is a long way from your home, a location to which you will likely travel for hours by crowded bus.  Once at the site, you will be housed in dormitory-style, rustic quarters, but the outdoor toilets are really not more than twenty-five yards away.  Access to sinks and showers is shared, so the earliest risers have the best chance at access.

These are the accommodations that will be yours for an entire week as you learn materials that are quite foreign to your experience; the facilitators will be requiring you to get out of your “comfort zone” every day.  Most of the instructors do not speak your language, so you will be receiving their information through translation.  Furthermore, the instructors are not even from your own country, so the cultural, social and educational norms they bring are not your own.  They have brought books with them, which, though translated into your language, you may or may not be able to read, given your previous educational experiences.  You know few of the other participants, perhaps just the one other person from your own business.

This, then, is the context of the Certificate Program held from September 5-10 at the foot of Peñas Blancas, home of the GARBO Cooperative.  Yet despite the need to come to terms with  inconveniences which might keep most of us away,  forty-five producers, technicians and funders attended this second gathering of organizational innovation.  Their mere presence was an astonishing testament to a desire to learn and implement new ideas in a world that, at times, is changing as quickly in rural Nicaragua as anywhere else in the world.  No one was present because they had to be; they participated in the 9-hour days of presentations and exercises because they had committed themselves to learning something new, to improving upon what they have practiced for generations, to becoming someone different.

Perhaps a part of that commitment stemmed from the presence of several unusual “teachers.”  My own face and voice has become familiar to at least some in the audience, but I was accompanied by two new faces, friends/colleagues from the U.S. who brought a unique and valuable bundle of organizational development experiences with them.  Brian Kopas is a former teammate from Foldcraft Co., the leader in our efforts for implementing Lean Manufacturing there, a continuous-improvement-by-method. one of the main hallmarks of that company’s success in recent decades.  Alex Moss is President of Praxis Consulting Group, one of the truly personal and high-values consulting firms in the U.S., and an outstanding teacher of open-book management cultures and practices.

Imagine for a moment what it would require of you to donate an entire week of your life to helping complete strangers grapple with the difficulties of organizational strengthening.  You will need to seek time off from your “real work” to make the journey.  To further complicate matters, you will receive no monetary compensation for your time and there will be no prospects of financial gain in the future from this endeavor.  You will be required to travel for a day-and-half to reach the conference site. You will be addressing an audience which does not speak your language.  Your accommodations will be modest but comfortable, as long as you don’t drink the water.

There is but one motivation to compel people like Brian and Alex, as well as the participants in the Program, and that is the notion of commitment.  The attendees were as committed to learning as any group I have encountered in the U.S. in over 45 years.  The commitment on the part of Brian and Alex, to bring their expertise to a part of the world where it is sorely needed, is a statement of faith in stewardship and sharing, an unselfish giving that flies in the face of today’s headlines of self-centeredness.

There was a lot more going on in the Certificate Program that week; I look forward to sharing it with you.  But for me, the overriding truth of the week emerged from the strength of its commitments….

 

 

Of Vision and Purpose

While we’re busy preparing for the second Certificate Program for rural cooperative members and managers, technicians, second-tier coop representatives and others, the focus is on methodologies.  After all, we’ve spent portions of the past ten years describing organizational strengthening techniques used successfully in the U.S. in hopes that it might spark interest in the Nica countrysides.  Now that rural producers have asked for greater detail about initiatives like open book management, Lean continuous improvement and organizational transparency, the workshop facilitators are eager to deliver such particulars.

As mentioned here previously, Winds of Peace will have the great good fortune to present Brian Kopas and Alex Moss,  gentlemen whose organizational experiences in the fields of organizational Lean and open book management are extraordinary, and therefore of great potential application to this Nica workshop.  They  possess enormous knowledge and practical experiences, they have already provided materials for the introduction of their topics, they are counseling us in our respective workshop presentations and they will be huge resources for the inevitable questions and challenges that are encountered during the workshop.  (Where people are intent upon learning, their questions and challenges are essential.)

But as I consider the wealth of knowledge that will be available to our audience in September, I am cognizant of another critical piece to the process of teaching and growing an audience: the vision.

Underlying all the operational processes and applications, there must be a vision, a mission, a purpose, a theme for the hard work that the attendees will encounter if they seek to bring an entirely new basket of ideas to their farms and coops.  There must be a core principle that can re-direct and drive the improvements consistently, even when the newly-acquired skills might occasionally seem to become stale or seemingly inapplicable for some  reason.  In moments of frustration or temporary setback, that motivator can keep an organization together, to persevere and regain solid footing for the next advance in their collaborative strength-building.

Some organizations employ a vision, a stated “picture” of what the future might be like.  Others prefer the idea of a mission, an intrinsically important undertaking whose outcome has the capability of delivering fundamental, positive changes.  Still other groups elect to use the language of values, citing social or moral tenets that shape their beliefs and actions.   But whatever words are used, the reality is the same: in order for human beings to change, to adapt, to move from their comfort zones, they universally crave a “cause,” a fundamental, personal reason to do that which is difficult to do.

In the case of the very successful Panamanian cooperative La Esperanza de los Campesinos (the Hope of the Peasants), that bedrock upon which their success has been built is in the historical presence of Fr.  Hector Gallegos, whose spiritual and liberation theological teachings centered the coop members.  (See “A Cooperative That Regulates Markets” by Rene Mendoza.)  For a company like SRC Holdings in Springfield, Missouri, the birthplace of open book management, the bedrock was the liberation of employee thinking and intelligence through information sharing and involvement.  For Winds of Peace Foundation, the bedrock has been the  liberation of financial assets to address the dangerous gulf between the poor and the wealthy.  Initiatives come and go, but the calling for the each of these organizations survives because of the depth of its existence.  These organizations must do what they do.  It is in their organizational DNA.

The coops represented in the Certificate Program will need to identify and embrace their own “calls to being. ”  For some, the cause is already deeply engrained and sustaining the direction of the members.  But for others, the identification might be less certain and less steadying.  Maybe it has never been articulated in terms of a vision.  Perhaps there are several purposes that have been embraced by the members, with no single mission emerging as the great unifier.  In some cases, maybe the issue has never even come up; coop membership was simply a way to access funds for the next planting cycle.  Whatever the case, every coop will require  something to hold onto when the vagaries of weather and middlemen and coyotes of the marketplace interject their disruptions into plans for prosperity.  What will the coops bedrock prove to be?

When Brian and Alex bring their skills to the Certificate Program, it will not be due to monetary gain (they receive none) or for notoriety (the program will take place in the deep countryside, away from media notice).  They will present no political cause, no self-service nor personal advantage.  They will spend more than an entire week out of their professional and personal lives because of deep-seated values that inform their senses of servant leadership and responsible stewardship.  The lessons and know-how they teach may change between September and the next time they are invited to work with such an audience, but the reasons for accepting such an invitation will not.  It is, after all, who they are.

Sometime during that first week of September, we’ll be interacting with some very eager Nicaraguans who know precisely who they are….

 

Deja vu All Over Again

I traveled to Nicaragua last weekend to spend some time with colleagues there in planning for the second Certificate Program, to be underwritten by Winds of Peace Foundation.  It’s an opportunity to gather some 50 rural producers, technicians, coffee buyers, lenders and others and talk about the coffee process and how to make it work better for the small farmer.  There’s a great deal of planning and preparation put into these programs by Dr. Rene Mendoza and his team, and the chance to sit together and envision outcomes and opportunities is rich with possibilities.  The two days were time well-spent.

One of the results from those sessions was my own assignment: a series of presentations on the topic of open book management and organizational transparency.  I’ve presented the stories of my own experiences with the topic at Foldcraft Co., where we explored the boundaries of shared information in ways that most companies do not.  But this September will require preparation and teaching in a depth that I haven’t encountered since those corporate days more than ten years ago.

In one sense, there’s a bit of anxiety as I organize my thoughts and endeavor to pick out the most salient messages in a topic that is brimming with leadership, organizational and individual motivations.  I hope that I can convey the rewards to be found and the potholes to be avoided.  At the same time, I find myself energized as I prepare to “teach” an audience that has shown an eagerness to embrace a methodology that is both perplexing and enticing.  I only get into a small number of classrooms during the course of a year, and this will be a large and important one.  I can feel the adrenaline already.  I wonder what I’m going to feel like  on September 5.

I’ve drawn upon many of the old materials that we used at Foldcraft, re-discovered many of the best lessons from the case of Springfield Remanufacturing Company (SRC) where the whole notion began.  I’ve gone back to re-read the books and the article and the papers that served as  our own lesson materials, and I recall now why this was such a big deal back in the 90’s when we first began opening our books, our operations and ourselves organizationally.  And once again, I’m pumped up because I know what these practices can mean to any organization, but especially one that is struggling with survival, as many of the small coops in northern Nicaragua do.

And slowly, as I paste together lessons and bits of wisdom and truths about the application of open books in a small U.S. company, I recognize once again the universality of its message.  This is just like preparing for a Foldcraft audience all those years ago.  It’s not a ploy or a trick or sleight of hand program to get people to work harder.  Transparency is not a magic elixir or medicine to cure whatever might ail an organization.  Information-sharing is not an altruistic activity designed to win the hearts of co-workers or to win accolades from management periodicals.

The process is simply an appeal to people’s better instincts, their innate feeling that they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and successful for their lives.  They want to invest themselves in something they can believe in, that they can identify with, that gives them pride and accomplishment for the daily demand of work.  We all seek the same ends, and to ultimately be recognized and rewarded fairly for the investment of our time and our skills.  In a world where there are always those who seek to strip that away from others, to elevate themselves at the expense of others, there is strength in collaborative and informed work.

As they say at SRC and throughout the open book world, “It’s easy to stop one guy, but it’s pretty hard to stop 100.”  No matter that we spend so much of our time trying to distinguish ourselves from each other.  We are all pretty much alike, and looking for the same affirmations….