How Kohler Company Uses Corporate Training to Gear up for Change

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Like many companies across the nation, Kohler Company’s human resource professionals are undertaking a strategic shift—moving away from being administrators focused on hiring, firing and report filing to become internal business consultants who are an integral part of equipping the company with the talent and vision needed for long-term competitiveness in the global bath and kitchen market.

The shift in the human resources department is one part of several company-wide initiatives that are positioning Kohler for continued long-term growth in the bath and kitchen market across six continents.

Those initiatives mean widespread change throughout the company, and the human resources departments are finding themselves at the front lines of that change, both adapting to the company’s new direction themselves and helping employees throughout the company remain focused, productive and inspired during the company’s evolution.

But, like many companies battling an uncertain economy, Kohler’s human resources department had been undertaking all of these changes without any face-to-face meetings or conferences since 2007.

Last year, 21 of the company’s human resources associates gathered together for the first time in four years, focusing their conference on the need to build relationships, learn to adapt to change, and work collaboratively.

On the final day of the conference, the group gathered for their final meeting of the week. In the past, Kohler employees had volunteered at food banks, The Salvation Army and other non-profits.

But for a conference that would include employees from several countries, Kohler looked for a philanthropic corporate training program that would cross all boundaries and make an impact on employees from various backgrounds.

As the attendees met the final day of the conference, they were greeted by an unusual display of springs, small metal pieces and plastic parts. The pieces were the centerpiece of team building exercise that builds prosthetic hands for landmine victims. The mix of philanthropy and corporate training during the exercise focused on teaching collaboration in the workplace.

"The learning exercises were targeted toward change and we were able to apply that immediately," said Ginger King, Human Resources manager for Kohler Wisconsin.

Being a large multi-national corporation, Kohler deals with the same challenges in communication, collaboration and adaptation to change that many companies of its size struggle with as they grow and evolve.

Whether egos, personalities and working styles clash or mesh can be crucial to a company’s bottom line. Kohler understood that an investment in employee morale, collaboration and productive teamwork can lead to exponentially larger increases in company profit and productivity—especially during a time of change.

In an increasingly complex corporate world where employment is often one piece of a giant company puzzle, employees can become disassociated from the end result of their work and disconnected from why they work.

Using simple, meaningful exercises, Kohler’s week of corporate training reconnected each employee with the impact they can have on a daily basis and the power behind collaborating with their co-workers. The collaboration broke down barriers to innovation and teamwork that were ingrained in many employees.

"We all make the personal decision to work every day and we make the decision to work at Kohler," said King. "But the corporate training program taught us how we can make the decision to make an impact every day."

The team-building exercise also fit into Kohler’s increased emphasis on philanthropy. Kohler employees engaged in the assembly of the prosthetic limbs that were the centerpiece of the corporate training program.

To emphasize the impact that prosthetic hands will make in the lives of the amputees, Kohler’s corporate trainers challenged each Kohler team member to assemble the hands with a single hand.

"It made us use each other. My partner [and I] would maneuver the hand together. We built it together more as team, instead of breaking out into ‘you do this and you do that.’ We really had to work together," said Kohler employee Melanie Knowles, one of the program attendees.

"It put you in the position of the person you are helping and showed you what it was like to have one hand and what we take for granted," said King.

As the program wrapped up, each team was left with the knowledge that their teamwork would transform a life, as the prosthetic limb was packaged for delivery to an amputee who would be using it to once again accomplish daily tasks, support a family, feed and dress him or herself.

And Kohler employees returned to their work life with a new outlook on confronting the changes Kohler is undergoing, and the collaboration and flexibility they will need to help the company evolve.

"I think that people left very fulfilled, more so than any of the other events we have done," said King.