Opening Doors

Posted on Jul 1, 2010 :: Small Business Spotlight
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Mid Valley Industries' executive team, photo by MaryBeth Matzek

Change isn’t easy. With that in mind, Kevin Schmid, owner of Mid Valley Industries in Kaukauna, knew he would need help as the company transitioned ownership and grew to the next level. He turned to Shipra Seefeldt, owner of Strategic Solutions Counseling in Appleton and an expert in organizational change and effectiveness.

“It all boiled down to better communication for us at every step,” says Schmid, who began working with Seefeldt after buying out a partner and becoming the firm’s sole owner three years ago.

“We (the employees) discovered a lot about each other and the process of what we do. Shipra helped us navigate through conflict and become a successful team. If we don’t work well together, we’re not as productive, which isn’t good for business. The first few months were challenging as employees bared their souls, but it helped us better understand each other.”

Getting started is often the hardest part when it comes to change, and Seefeldt says having a strong leader in place can make all the difference. “You need someone who leads not only with their words, but their actions,” she says, adding that Schmid, for example, went first when managers would gather to discuss personal strengths and weaknesses.

A precision machine shop with about 100 workers, Mid Valley has office and production employees. Bringing those two worlds together wasn’t always the easiest.

Seefeldt met first with the management team and talked about strengths and weaknesses and where they wanted to see the company go. From there, she met with administrative and production staff so everyone was on the same page and understood the company’s values and goals.

“If communication is a core value for the company, everyone needs to know it. It also fits in with the core responsibility of accountability,” Seefeldt says.
Breaking down barriers between different departments and improving communication helped make the company stronger, Schmid says.

“I think it helped us better weather the economic downturn because we had this collaborative environment in place. I realize that not a lot of people bring in someone to help them become better communicators, but I thought it was essential for the company’s growth. Sure, it costs something, but think about how much it would cost if we weren’t communicating effectively and not providing our customers with the best service and product,” he says. “We explained to the workers that everyone plays a key role in customer satisfaction and empowered employees to speak up to make the process and outcome better.”

At many businesses, when Employee A has a problem with Employee B, they often go to Employee C or other people to discuss the issue rather than facing it head on. That process defined as triangulation is something Seefeldt saw happening a lot at Mid Valley.

“If someone had a problem, they would go right to Kevin or someone else not involved to discuss it. That wastes time and energy while not dealing with the issue,” Seefeldt says. “We worked a lot on providing employees with the right communication tools and techniques on how to bring up issues and topics that previously they might have avoided.”

“Solving that triangulation problem was huge for us,” Schmid continues. “I’m not saying it still doesn’t happen, but now we’re labeling it and calling it what it is – something that wastes time and doesn’t add value to the process.”

Schmid admits confronting someone directly about a problem isn’t the easiest thing to do, but that Seefeldt worked with employees to help them find the right words on how to address conflict.

Schmid wasn’t sure at first how many employees would be comfortable with the new ways of communication. “But employees really embraced it,” he says, although some did seek out jobs at other companies rather than go through the change at Mid Valley.

Mid Valley managers also learned from employees – especially those on the shop floor – that more information was needed about the end product they were all working on. “We’re often doing a component of a larger project and they would like to know what that larger project is. It helps them to be more vested in the end result and have pride about what they’re doing,” says Schmid.

While trust is essential in creating an atmosphere of open communication, the other part of the equation is to create a safe environment where employees aren’t afraid of speaking up, Schmid says. “We have an open door policy here,” he says.

Schmid says Seefeldt’s work with the company is essential as the company seeks to enter new markets, strengthen current relationships and customer service and achieve ISO 9001, which it plans on applying for this year.

“We couldn’t do what we’ve done if we still had those communication barriers in place. I know it sounds easy to say you’re going to have better communication with employees, but it isn’t. You need to take proactive steps to do it, even if it’s not always fun,” he says. “I have found the reward to be worth it. We’ve been able to grow and create a more pleasant working experience.”