Painting the future

Volume 23 Letter 11

Most of our newsletters are about launching new products and opening new markets.  Often glossed over are those tricky points in time when a company needs to navigate through a market transition – those tectonic shifts where everything you know to be true suddenly isn’t.

We’ve all seen how on-line advertising shifted the media markets and decimated the print industry and how online streaming is killing cable networks.  And what about tomorrow?  Will digitalization of just about everything change just about everything in every industry?  As a leader – how do you prepare yourself for unseen challenges and how can you prepare your team for an uncertain future?  The story of an Audi automotive paint shop provides us with a good place to start and though Audi’s paint shop strategy is still a work in progress the story shows how a leader can prepare a team for an uncertain future.

Like all automotive companies, Audi is scrambling to transition to a digital future of electric cars and manufacturing robots.  While the Audi corporation figures out its corporate strategy, its paint factory which employs 2000+ people is contemplating how they’ll fit in and how they can ensure a sustainable future that provides them with secure jobs.  It’s uncertain times and the automotive industry is in transition but the paint shop CEO felt it important to keep his team engaged.  He started by asking all 2000 employees what were their top concerns about the future.  What he found was striking.

Engaging so many people in a single workshop about the future was deemed impossible.  Instead, the leadership team created a digital tool that would enable every team member to ask any question about the future, to anyone they wanted.  The tool would be open for only 5 days to create a sense of urgency and focus.   Questions were restricted to paint shop questions only.  To gain the trust of the working team the team leaders made four pledges: a. to answer all questions promptly, b. questions could be directed at anyone in the paint shop, c. all answers would include a follow-on question to keep the dialogue thread going, and d. there were no limits on the number of questions anyone could ask.  To kick off the dialogue the paint shop CEO sent out a video inviting everyone to participate.

It had taken four months to build the online tool and during that time the paint shop leadership met regularly.  To help prepare for the expected questions the 10 member leadership group predicted that questions would likely fall into six categories.  1. Organization, 2. Tasks, 3. Staff, 4. Development, 5. Responsibility, and 6. Appreciation.   When the tool opened up their predictions were 0 / 6 as they discovered the workers had other things on their mind.   Specifically, the chief concerns centred around 1. Value creation, 2. General alignment, 3. Work environment, 4. Culture, and 5. Collaboration.

Additionally, when the leadership team reviewed “who” was asking questions of “whom”, there were a few surprises. For example, a large number of shift workers asked questions about strategy directly of the leadership team, bypassing immediate superiors.    This indicated that the strategy wasn’t being well communicated and led to an initiative to ensure it was.

The leadership team was able to answer almost all the questions, except about 13% that pertained to job security and digitization.  It was felt those questions showed a way of “thinking and taking responsibility for improvements and innovation” that would be needed to compete in a changing market1.  The paint shop CEO appointed representatives from across the company to tackle these future looking questions with the goal of ensuring the paint shop and the jobs it creates remains relevant into the future.

This is still a work in progress – there is no happy ending – yet.  However, there are lessons to be learned from the Audi paint factory:

  1. Listen: It’s important leaders understand the concerns and needs of their team members.  This can foster team trust and engagement – a welcome asset when facing an uncertain future.
  2. Communicate. When a strategy is a work in progress keeping your team informed and updated is crucial.
  3. Give your team purpose:  Aligning with a larger vision is tough when the future is uncertain.  The paint factory mandated their strategy representatives have a goal to ensure the relevance of their jobs in the future.

The story of the Audi paint shop and how they’re engaging their workforce in shaping their strategy highlights the importance of listening, adapting, and involving everyone in navigating uncharted waters. We’ll all face an uncertain future at some point in time.  What are you doing to prepare your team to succeed?

  1. How Business Leaders can Prepare for Anything  by Pia Lauritzen November 16, 2023

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