Cochlear is an Australian medical manufacturer that produces cochlear implants for the hearing impaired, and is considered one of the leading medical manufacturers in the world.
- captures over 60% of the market share for hearing implants world wide
- In 2012, it employed 2,390 employees and contractors worldwide
- Had 450 manufacturing employees in Sydney
Need For Change
To prepare them for a time of significant growth and change, Voice Project conducted employee engagement surveys with Cochlear in 2004 and 2006. After conducting interviews and focus groups with staff and managers, Professor Paul Gollan and Senia Kalfa of Macquarie University documented Cochlear’s journey in leveraging employee involvement (recently published in Gollan et al’s  Voice and Involvement at Work).
Cochlear’s employee voice surveys primarily indicated a greater need for effective communication channels and concerns were raised around management’s attentiveness to employee issues. Concurrently, business was booming and Cochlear could not keep up with production demands. In 2006 they decided to shift from batch production to a lean manufacturing system, which necessitated a reassignment of staff from individual operators to small teams, cross-trained to delegate all tasks from within.
Major Organisational Changes
- established a collective, non-union voice mechanism known as the Employee Consultative Committee (ECC),
- conducted focus groups on specific issues,
- invested significantly in English language training for staff, and
- improved their direct lines of communication.
Outcome of Voice
Cochlear was able to significantly improve the efficiency of their manufacturing processes, develop into a dynamic, performance-focused organisation, and meet the booming demand for their product. By successfully opening channels for free information exchange, immediate improvements were made and potentially damaging issues were identified and addressed in a timely manner.
The Employee Consultative Committee
The ECC was established “to be used as a means to discuss matters of importance with employees, such as the adoption of flexible working arrangements, production targets, and training opportunities.” A charter was drafted regarding “how the ECC would run, its actual outcomes, what kind of issues we were going to raise and its benefits.” For example, the HR Manager was adamant that the ECC would not be an appropriate context to discuss problems with specific individuals.
In 2009, the ECC was composed of twelve members, including: the Head of Maintenance and Logistics, the occupational health and safety manager, four production managers, and six employee representatives who were nominated by their peers. They met for two hours monthly. In 2012, the ECC met monthly and the number of employee representatives rose to nine. The organisation provided employee representatives training on appropriate topics to be raised in the ECC forum. ECC representatives were expected to “keep their ear to the ground” and set the agenda for ECC meetings. Members interviewed reported that they considered themselves the voice of workers and took pride in this role.
To ensure the remainder of Cochlear’s employees were aware of the issues discussed, copies of the minutes were posted in the lunchroom. Moreover, each employee representative personally informed his/her team in the weekly team meeting that followed the ECC meeting.
Initially, topics of interest revolved around social aspects of the job, such as lunchroom cleanliness, parking, and the annual ping-pong competition. However, over time, more serious concerns came to the fore, including: progress on its Enterprise Partnership Agreement, improvement to facilities, shift scheduling, and proposed modifications to production processes. For example, employees expressed dissatisfaction with the existing point system used for staff accreditation, as it did not accurately reflect the requirements of their jobs. These concerns were brought to management via the ECC and, as a result, the staff skill classification matrix was revised to capture the complexity of current processes.
Importantly, the ECC arose at a particular time, when tensions with the union were at their highest and significant changes needed to be implemented in terms of team structure, employee roles, and job activities. While the strategic decision to move to lean production was not subject to negotiation with employees, the implementation details were. The ECC was successful in maintaining a positive relationship between staff and management, and improving the implementation of the new production methods. However, it has declined in influence and importance since that period, with more effective direct mechanisms for employee voice increasing in prominence.
On the line, operators were encouraged to share suggestions with team leaders, who, in turn, passed them along to supervisors. Daily meetings were held between team leaders and members, as well as between production managers and team leaders. Team members, team leaders, and production managers also came together for weekly plant meetings. Consultation regarding problem-solving and line improvement occurred from both bottom-up and top-to-bottom. Production managers often consulted with team leaders as issues arose, empowering and developing stronger relationships with them. Such direct communication mechanisms have encouraged Cochlear employees to contribute and voice their opinion related to production issues. However, additional mechanisms would later be implemented to expose and accommodate for more challenging perspectives.
Focus Groups and Surveys
In 2009, the Head of Maintenance and Logistics took measures to ensure more sensitive matters were heard in focus groups and conveyed to Cochlear’s management. It emerged that direct manufacturing operators were concerned that team leaders lacked people management skills. Measures were taken to rectify the situation, with team leaders completing a development program to help them build on their skills. To pick up on similar issues, Cochlear continues to run engagement surveys on a biennial basis, in which employees are given the opportunity to voice personal concerns.
One of Cochlear’s more interesting strategies was the Well Placed English Language Speakers (WELL) English language training program, which gave voice to Cochlear workers by enabling them to improve their English language skills and better communicate with both leaders and peers. Cochlear’s Voice Survey showed that employees spoke languages other than English in the workplace, which was problematic for management as “operators were unable to understand technical work instructions and terminology.” Given the strict regulatory framework Cochlear operates under, “the main driver was to make sure there’s open communication and a common standard that everyone follows within the team.” Upon initiation, the WELL program enrolled roughly 200 people to participate in the first year. Cochlear continued to fund the program even after the government grant that initially paid for it was exhausted; and staff were paid overtime to participate in the program. The primary benefit reported from this program was increased confidence: “we feel more confident now standing up and talking to our teams and our team leaders compared to before.
Impact of Voice at Cochlear
Cochlear’s management recognised the value of opening up communication channels to encourage cooperation among managers and workers, facilitate the shift to lean manufacturing, and transform the company into a high-performance workplace. The implementation of lean at Cochlear was initially viewed with scepticism from employees, as it was believed “they were going to ask us for more (output).” However, this perception largely changed by 2009 as employees saw they were able to work more efficiently (daily production increased from 35 electrodes to 120 electrodes within the space of 3 years). Without the feedback and participation of those on the front line of production, Cochlear could have failed to tap the full potential of “going lean” by impeding the process of detecting and correcting errors during the transition. However, Cochlear successfully opened channels for free information exchange, which allowed for immediate improvements and timely resolution of potentially damaging issues.
The following were important variables that ensured the success of the voice mechanisms:
Managerial receptiveness to employee concerns
Emphasis on integrative problem-solving
Consultation around problem-solving and line improvement occurring from both bottom-up and top-to-bottom
Cochlear’s efforts emphasise the utility of adopting collective voice mechanisms in times of change. By successfully leveraging engagement surveys, team meetings, and targeted focus groups to fully ascertain employees’ views on production-related and management issues, Cochlear was able to significantly improve the efficiency of their manufacturing processes, develop into a dynamic, performance-focused organisation, and meet the booming demand for their product.
Find out more in:
Gollan, P.J. & Kalfa, S. (2015). NER in a Leading Australian Medical Manufacturer. In P.J. Gollan, B.E. Kaufman, D. Taras, and A. Wilkinson (Eds.), Voice and Involvement at Work. New York, NY: Routledge.