THE BLOG
10/11/2013 12:05 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

'GE Workout': Physical Fitness for Your Organization

As everyone knows, it's not the nature of the human body to automatically become more physically fit. On the contrary, it's a painful fact that flab, sluggishness and poor muscle-tone are the natural order of things. Fitness, stamina and robust health take hard work, not just occasionally but over an extended period of time.

We'd like to suggest here that the same thing is true of organizations. The word "organization" shares the same root with "organism" and is no less a living thing. So in order to maintain flexibility, resiliency and top performance, your organization needs "exercise," too. And just as our waistlines accumulate flab, and ships collect barnacles, organizations need ongoing "maintenance" and "scrubbing" to stay "fit."

Get a Workout!
One of the best "physical fitness" programs we know of for organizations is a methodology known as GE Workout. Developed at General Electric during the Jack Welch era, Workout provides an approach for confronting the health threats to your organization and your business and dealing with them fast! With the kind of ongoing "exercise" that Workout provides, your company maintains its "physical fitness" over time in much the same way that an athlete keeps well-toned through rigorous, ongoing exercise and practice.

Has one of your key business processes gotten "flabby?" Have costs in a certain product or business area or function become "bloated?" Have you been too "slow and sluggish" in implementing a new business initiative? All of these issues are examples of "organizational fitness" problems that a good "Workout" can help you address.

How Workout Works
Here are the steps you can take to give your organization a needed "Workout":

  1. Enlist the people closest to the issue you're trying to address. You have a process problem? Involve the key individuals who touch the process from beginning to end. A cost issue? Ask yourself: Who are the people who are closer to it and know more about it than anyone else?
  2. Provide them with the time, space and facilitative support to help them develop careful recommendations to fix the problem. Make sure their recommendations designate "owners" for each and are accompanied by detailed "action plans" to be implemented by certain "delivery" dates.
  3. Before their problem-solving session is even adjourned -- and this is one of Workout's most distinguishing and powerful elements -- bring the appropriate decision-makers into the room and have them render on-the-spot decisions on your team's recommendations. This "bureaucracy-busting" element is extremely exhilarating and invigorating to most organizations and allows teams to begin implementing fixes immediately -- for faster results.
  4. Establish an "accountability structure" for monitoring implementation according to a publicly-defined schedule. We usually use a timetable of 30, 60 and 90-day checkpoints. The objective here is speed! After all, we're talking organizational physical fitness, right?

Smashing Bureaucracy and "Business-as-Usual"
What's so different about all this, you ask? Plenty -- even after some 20-plus years of existence. First, Workout is based on selecting participants according to their knowledge of and closeness to an issue vs. their standing in the organizational hierarchy. Second, Workout smashes bureaucracy, business-as-usual, "the way we always do it around here," by insisting on speed and a sense of urgency from everyone involved.

Notably, Workout demands this sense of urgency from senior executive decision makers, too, not just the folks lower down on the corporate ladder. This insistence that leaders deliberate and decide quickly and publicly represents quite a change for many senior executives and is one of Workout's most effective change-accelerators.

In bureaucratic organizations, it instantly changes the culture in the room, and if you do it with frequency over a long enough period of time, it can change the culture of an entire company. This was in fact the case at GE where Workout was invented, and it has since proven to have similar results in many other companies as well.

Workout: Tactical or Strategic
Over the years since its inception at GE, Workout has shown itself to be an extremely robust and flexible organizational "exercise" program. You can use it tactically to "tone-up" a specific area of your company. Or, as GE did and many companies since have, you can embark on an orchestrated series of Workouts across your entire organization, over a sustained period of time, as part of a strategic business "make-over" or transformation.

Either way, and regardless of the size of your company, Workout can help you become a more organizationally fit, resilient and efficient enterprise by supplying a framework that allows you to solve problems and make improvements fast. And in the final analysis, isn't that what true organizational physical fitness is all about?

Ray Gagnon is Principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in GE Workout, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.