There are 600 acres of wooded land around Milliken & Co.’s Spartanburg, S.C., headquarters. It’s the perfect setting for a company that has long prided itself on its environmental sustainability efforts. In fact, Milliken owns 130,000 acres of woodland, which along with its efforts to reduce energy use and waste have allowed the global manufacturer to be carbon negative in its operations.
But recently, the company has broadened its sustainability efforts to examine the whole issue of business sustainability. And that has brought a reassessment of the company’s culture and goals, Dawn Werry, Milliken’s director of marketing, told a breakout session at EHS Today’s America’s Safest Companies Conference in Atlanta.
In the 1980s, Werry explained, Milliken had made quality the centerpiece of its culture. She said that had produced a company focused on standards and reliability, but not one focused as much on customers and market needs.
Company leaders took to heart what longtime CEO Roger Milliken had said: “Quality excellence secures the present. Innovation excellence secures the future.” In 2011, the company determined to make innovation its primary focus. To drive home the importance of this new approach, CEO Joe Salley stood on a ladder before 250 company leaders and took a pledge to support innovation, recreating a pledge Roger Milliken had taken 30 years earlier ushering in the company’s quality initiative.
The company decided to take its three longstanding values – ethics, excellence and leadership – and build on them to make the changes needed in its culture. It created a set of company “purposes”: do good, create new experiences and build for the future.
Do good. Ethics is about doing the right thing but it was primarily centered on Milliken’s internal business practices, Werry said. “Doing good is about moving beyond doing the right thing to how we are doing a good thing in the world,” she said. That can include not just the company’s practices but also its products.
“We can reduce waste or fuel consumption all day long and we can only reduce a little bit more, a little bit more until we are about at zero,” Werry said. “If we can help automobiles be more fuel efficient, we can save far more fuel than we have ever saved with our manufacturing processes.”
Create new experiences. While excellence is about putting out a quality product, Werry said, “what is really meaningful about a product is when you completely change the experience you have with it.” While she cited the Apple iPod as a famous example, she pointed to a Milliken wound dressing that helps not just protect the wound from infection but also help manage the fluid to optimize healing. Another example is developing fire resistant clothing that is also more comfortable and more likely to be worn.
Build for the future. Werry said this takes the concept of leadership and extends it to not only how Milliken performs in the market, but how Milliken can help its customers and communities also prepare for future success.
Changing the Environment
To support the new emphasis on innovation, Milliken has taken a number of steps to change the environment in which its associates operate. Milliken had stressed employee learning through its Milliken University, which had required employees to take 40 hours a year of classroom training, focused largely on quality-related topics such as statistics and process control. While those courses still are available, the company has moved to a 70-20-10 adult learning model that puts primary emphasis on experiential learning, then mentoring and finally a reduced role for formal classes. And the course offering has changed to better equip more autonomous employees to deal with issues such as employee management, human-centered design and developing market insights.
Milliken has also altered its physical environment, creating informal gathering spots where employees can meet to discuss new ideas and lining meeting rooms with glass walls where employees are encouraged to sketch out ideas and proposals. The company even replaced outer walls at its headquarters with glass walls to let in more of the natural environment.
Milliken built an innovation gallery at its headquarters. The gallery provides the history of Milliken’s innovations through a series of stories and showcases the new products and processes Milliken has developed. Though the gallery was originally designed for customers, it has proven so effective in changing the culture that the company starting bringing in groups of employees to tour it. On Fridays in May, the company brings in 150 employees from 30 nearby sites for lunch and a tour of the gallery.
“It really helps them understand who we are and where we are going, and they are passionate and excited to be part of it,” Werry told the ASC audience.
Werry said the innovation initiative had started with an understanding of Milliken’s values and goals, and been supported by key changes in its environment, but it was sustained through employee engagement.
“If we have created a community of engaged innovators, that will just keep sustaining,” she said.