Edición 60, Current Issue, Human Resources

Sowing Seeds For Improvement in the Desert

By: Luis Arciniega, ITAM

There is unusual activity in the multipurpose room of the small village of Laguna del Rey, in the Mexican State of Coahuila. Dozens of people enter and leave the premises where the town’s great annual event will take place the next morning. It is not a fair or agro-industrial exhibition. It is the annual continuous improvement contest organized by the company Magnelec. It is not a corporate event closed to the public. On the contrary, family members of the teams that were the finalists in the year just ended attend. The implementation of their ideas for continuous improvement has impacted on the operative efficiency of the processes of the company. They were preselected to reach the great finale, where executives of the corporation to which the company belongs, serve as judges to choose the best teams based on the degree of innovation and scope of the projects.

It is as if it were a great musical event. People line up very early to enter the auditorium, which is filled until there is not a single space available. The emotion and stress are latent. The banners begin to unfold. It is striking to see schoolchildren enthusiastically supporting their parents, including in some cases their grandparents and aunts and uncles, and you can read signs with words such as, “I support my mother of the monarchs team,” “Jaguars will win” or “I support my grandfather Pedro.”

Brief History of the Company

Magnelec is a subsidiary of Grupo Peñoles, which is located next to one of the largest deposits of sodium sulfate on the planet. The nearest urban center is Torreón, which is two and a half hours away by car.  During the summer, it is not uncommon to see temperatures reach nearly 50 degrees Celsius, which is normal in this semi-desert region of the country.

The company has been operating for more than 50 years and although it is part of a leading industrial group in the mining sector, its main focus is the production of chemical inputs for the industry. The plant is one of the world’s largest producers of sodium sulfate, a basic element in the manufacture of detergents, as well as other chemicals highly valued today, such as one used in the manufacture of building coating products, which slow down significantly the propagation of fire in the event of a fire.

In Mexico, the petrochemical and automotive sectors, among others, were pioneers in the implantation of systems of continuous improvement through the different modalities of collaborative work, as for example self-managed or self-directed work teams. In the case of mining, it took a little longer in Mexico to implement these methodologies. The variability in the international price of the star product of Magnelec forced the company more than two decades ago to focus on improving the efficiency of its processes to be able to offer competitive prices before a growing presence of Asian players in the market. Continuous improvement was undoubtedly the best tool to apply to achieve this goal.

The fact that the deposit was located in the middle of the desert made it necessary to build a town where the company’s employees would live. This also brought other immigrants who operate the micro-businesses that attend to the daily needs of the population, such as supermarkets and laundries and, of course, professionals and technicians who provide services to the community, such as doctors, nurses and teachers who teach classes in the elementary, secondary and high schools that educate the children and youth of this town of about 4,500 inhabitants.

A very interesting phenomenon happened in the town and has greatly benefitted the students in Laguna del Rey who have an outstanding academic performance, according to the rankings of the state of Coahuila. When moving to Laguna del Rey, several of the wives of the technicians and professionals who worked in the corporate world in the nearby cities, left that world and emigrated to the educational field and today are the teachers at the secondary and high schools. It is not uncommon to see cases like that of a chemical engineer who worked in the area of quality control of the powerful dairy industry of La Laguna and today is a chemistry teacher in one of the secondary schools in the town. In other words, the local children and youth have benefitted from this migratory phenomenon.

The Rise of the Contest and Aid to the Community

The company’s management made the decision, more than 26 years ago, to hold an annual continuous improvement contest to institutionalize the importance of the company’s philosophy of improvement, to generate positive competition among teams and to strengthen the social link between the company and families, so that the children of the employees would be aware of the contribution of their parents to the organization and that they would feel pride in their parent’s work. The recipe has been so successful that the event is held annually and increasingly on a larger scale, and participating has become an aspiration among the employees of the company.

In the last years, the ideas for improvement proposed by the plants’ teams have gone beyond the processes of the company. Team members realized thattheir collaborative work could transcend the workcontext, so they decided to carry out community projects in Laguna del Rey. For example, one of the teams observed that the people of the town had to spend several minutes under the hot sun while waiting for the arrival of buses passing through the town. With their initiative and work, and with materials donated by the company, the team built a covered bus stop with seats. Another team detected that the families of the town had to cut their hours of recreation in the small park that is located on the outskirts of town, since after sunset it was practically impossible for the children to play. They requested the support of the company to buy lamps and cable and they themselves took charge of developing a lighting system that today allows families in Laguna del Rey to have more hours of outdoor recreation.

The Unexpected Side Effect

A focus group discussion was held with one of the winning teams in a previous edition of the annual competition for improvement, which sought to probe the individual and collective benefits of the system. One of the participants commented that his daughter, who was studying engineering in Monclova, had called him a few days before to ask him about some details of the process of continuous improvement. She had to make a presentation the following day and she had become the star of her group, besides having astonished her teacher with the great amount of knowledge she had about the subject. She had to be careful in the presentation in order not lose her reputation as an expert. With great pride, her father said, “and why wouldn’t you know a lot, if from a young age you never missed a single edition of the annual contest for improvement, as if it were The Voiceor another show like that.” This interesting comment stimulated my interest in tracking whether it was only an individual effect or whether the system had transcended to a collective level. I asked for support of the company to visit one of the elementary and secondary schools in the town and to interview the children who were studying there to assess the extent to which the seeds of continuous improvement planted through their attendance at the annual competition had paid off. During my visit to one of the elementary schools, I had the opportunity to interview three children in fifth and sixth grade simultaneously. All three were randomly selected. One of them was the son of an engineer in the company, one of a supervisor and the youngest of a line operator. With absolute naturalness, the three described to me that to improve something, it was absolutely necessary to measure what they wanted to improve, and from there decide what they would measure and how. The next step was for people to think what actions to take so that the measurements would perform better. In addition, it was very important to share the results with the team and to find ways to celebrate the achievements and to reflect on and analyze the failures. The conclusion of the interview was overwhelming: the seeds of improvement sown in the desert had borne unexpected results, a striking case of how a corporative initiative can have a significant impact on society.

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