Fabulous Bragging Sessions

By Tom Peters

To many, the textile industry is dead. But not to Roger Milliken of Milliken and Company. The $2 billion, privately held Spartanburg, S.C., company is a winner, pure and simple.

It has been so for decades, under the leadership of Chairman Milliken, who insists on state-of-the-art manufacturing technology. Four years ago, he and Milliken President Tom Malone developed a new means of improving product quality—participative management.

The program was kicked off by independent quality czar Phillip Crosby. Hundreds of Milliken managers went through the newly founded “Crosby Quality College.” Measurement systems were introduced into every corner of the company, from accounts receivable to management information systems and from sales to factory. Quality circles (Milliken calls them CATs—Corrective Action Teams) were introduced en masse.

Milliken has an impressive record of improvement in terms of dollars of quality savings (cost saved from enhanced conformity to specifications) and, more importantly, in terms of increasing revenue dollars generated. The company has earned top supply ratings with General Motors. Industrial giants such as DuPont and Westinghouse are sending teams of their top executives to visit Milliken to learn its system.

I believe there is something extra special that Milliken has done, which has helped get results far beyond even the company’s expectations. It is, to use Malone’s term, the introduction of “Fabulous Bragging Sessions” (the official name is “Corporate Sharing Rally”). In addition to increasing team and personal performance through enhanced motivation, “Fabulous Bragging Sessions” effectively and quickly push ideas from one end of the 60-plant organization to the other.

“Fabulous Bragging Sessions” are held once per quarter, at corporate headquarters. As many as 200 people, at all levels, attend from around the system, some from hundreds of miles away. (Attendance is purely voluntary, but Milliken has had to expand the meeting site several times to try to accommodate all who want to attend.) The sessions last for two days, and the president or chairman attends every minute of them.

Dozens of teams give crisp, five-minute reports in rapid-fire succession. Reports are made from all quarters. Teams consist of secretaries and MIS people as well as machine operators. Each report describes the team’s program and quantifies its impact. Peers score every effort on several dimensions from presentation style to quality of the program.

Only a few rules mark the sessions: (1) no negative comments are allowed, (2) no excuses of “we could have done it (or done better) if X, Y, or Z had cooperated” are allowed, and (3) quality of the program is as important as the amount of saving or revenue improvement. All who are present at the sessions take home some award, although those who do well take home a higher grade of award. Each award is signed by the president, framed on the spot, and presented before team members leave the session.

Each bragging session has a theme. One might focus on cost reduction, another on sales increases, another on customer listening, another on quality improvements, and so on. Presenters at the quarterly sessions often have spoken several times at local preliminary bragging sessions within their factory or sales unit. The top winners in the quarterly session make presentations at the president’s meeting, where all the senior Milliken people gather.

Bragging and sharing has become a way of life at Milliken. The competition to become a presenter has grown keen. “Peers are really tough on each other,” says Malone. “I grade almost every presentation as excellent.”

Excitement reigns. Top management involvement is enthusiastic and consistent. All attendees are likely to go home with a host of ideas. Most importantly, these ideas haven’t been forced on them by top management; they have been suggested by peers.

We read ceaselessly about quality circles and various methods of statistical quality control. These are important at Milliken. Just as important, however, is the process of creating enthusiasm, sustaining momentum, and getting novel ideas to spread naturally across the system without the “Not Invented Here” syndrome arising.

Many, if not most, quality movements get off the ground adequately. It is the rare movement, however, that builds momentum over time. Vast sums of energy are expended in the launch, in teaching teams to do structured problem solving, and the like. Little or no attention is put into the sustaining, rewarding, and celebrating processes.

As Roger Milliken says, “Excitement is vital to our continuing success.” The “Fabulous Bragging Sessions” are at the heart of the excitement-engendering process. Even more so is the consistency of commitment and attention by the whole top management team.


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