People power

Office supplies company Lyreco is the winner of Training magazine’s
TD2001 Award.  Guy Sheppard finds out
how training has been fundamental to its transformation from a multi-million
pound loss-maker to one of the fastest growing firms in its sector.

Lyreco’s 1,160 employees have one obvious reason to feel enthused about
their work at present. If the company’s sales target of £144m is achieved this
year, each one of them will receive a bonus of £700.

But this is only one way the Telford-based office products supplier goes
about fulfilling its mission statement, "To delight customers, be proud of
what we do and grow like crazy".

In an industry where competitors sell much the same products and deliver
them in a similar way, Lyreco relies heavily on the quality of its people.

As managing director Steve Law says, "The only difference is our
culture and how we present ourselves to customers." He believes training
and development has had an enormous influence on establishing this competitive
edge. "You can sense whether employees like being with a company from the
atmosphere when you walk in," he says.

Lyreco’s training department is only four strong. Andrew Forrest, chairman
of the judging panel which named the company winner of TD2001, is amazed that
it has had such a big impact. "Training really permeates throughout the
whole business," he says. "In so many organisations, training is out
on a limb and not very central to the running of the business. Lyreco has
turned that completely on its head and made everyone evangelists of training.
Their enthusiasm came over very forcibly."

One factor that particularly impressed Forrest was the managing director’s
interest and involvement in training. "He attends the team leader training
courses as if he was quite a junior member of the management team. In my
experience, when people get to director level, they tend to get very pompous
and feel they have nothing more to learn." Forrest, who is learning and
development director of the Industrial Society, says Law’s participation sends
a powerful message to the entire organisation. "It is pretty untypical of
the managing directors I have come across."

Leadership development is one of the training team’s key roles and is
designed for managers and supervisors as well as employees aspiring to those
positions.

Over the last four years, more than 100 people have completed the programme,
which covers the recruitment, selection, induction, integration and motivation
of staff. It is also used to help line managers identify the development needs
of employees and review the success of training sessions.

Ian Lawson, head of training and development, says, "What we are
essentially trying to do is give them the skills to feel comfortable about
doing appraisals and coaching on a one-to-one basis. Before, it was a case of
sink or swim. Now we are giving some up-front investment, we are saying we
expect certain standards of leadership and this is what you should be aspiring
to."

Lawson was given the role of developing leadership training when he joined
the company from the Royal Mail in 1997. "We had 400 people then and we
realised we were going to grow quite rapidly so we needed inductions to be
structured."

Since his arrival, Lawson has become increasingly involved in helping to
chart the future direction of the company. "Senior managers involve me in
top-level decision-making since I am part of the senior management team,"
he says.

Although there to put the "people perspective" on any business
plan, he says this is not solely the agenda of HR people. "We have, in
effect, 10 senior people who are considering the people strategies to enable
the business to grow. This begins with the business planning process in
August."

He believes the influence of his department has grown as its results have
become more spectacular.

Forrest says Lyreco’s emphasis on teamwork, rather than clearly segregated
areas of responsibility, came across very strongly. "It was not a matter
of throwing blame at each other if there was a problem in one particular department.
There was a sense that they would deal with it together."

Lyreco recruits internally wherever possible, so poaching from rivals is
rarely an option. As a result, promotion is often rapid and everyone is
encouraged to consider it. Lawson says, "It is amazing when people come in
having been a brickie or panel beater and after two or three years they become
area sales manager – there’s some really good stories of people coming in,
working hard and being successful."

Internal promotion helps explain why such a relatively small training
department has managed to keep in touch with the changing needs of such a
rapidly expanding company. Apart from Lawson, each member started off in
another part of the business before joining. "Nobody has less than three
years’ experience of the industry and all have had operational roles previously
and been successful in them," he says.

All employees have twice-yearly appraisals, in which career moves and
training needs are discussed. A sense of vocation is also encouraged through a
company library, which has a selection of literature, videos, books and
cassette tapes covering everything from negotiation skills to personal
development.

Lawson says, "What I love is when someone comes in from warehousing and
says they are thinking about becoming a supervisor. We don’t have a tremendous
amount of resources or high-tech training methods, but training is certainly
making a difference."

Lawson’s department uses a five-stage evaluation process for any of its
activities. This starts with participants completing a questionnaire
immediately after their training finished and is followed up with tests to
establish how much knowledge has been gained. Employees and managers are
subsequently asked how the training has been applied in the workplace. The
final stage involves establishing the costs and benefits to the business.

One of the most spectacular results was in training staff who process orders
by phone and fax. The productivity of each operator increased by an average of
36 calls per hour to 42. This not only reduced staff costs, but also resulted
in lower staff turnover and fewer lost calls. The business is estimated to have
saved more than £700,000 a year as a result of a training programme that cost
less than £9,000.

Mike Campbell, a TD2001 judge and director of the policy research institute
at Leeds Metropolitan University, says the figures should not necessarily be
taken at face value, but adds, "It’s unusual for a relatively small
organisation like this to be assessing the effectiveness of its training so
systematically. It seems to be committed to linking training activity to
business strategy and consequently assessing the effectiveness of it on the
organisation’s performance in terms of productivity."

Forrest singles out another training initiative for particular praise. This
involved preparing 600 staff for a switch to a new software system.

Over a two-month period during the changeover, a "Minister of Fun"
was created to reduce stress levels and increase motivation. Activities
included a "keep cool day" with free ice creams, a jazz band playing
outside the entrance, and handing out chocolates to everyone once the
changeover was completed. "That felt like a training department being
imaginative," says Forrest. "It is trying to help colleagues in any
way it can. It was really inspiring."

Because the company’s 340 sales representatives work from home, based all
over the country, there is a danger that training provided from Telford will be
too remote. As a result, two footloose trainers are employed to cover this
section of the workforce.

Field sales director Mike Hopkins says, "They are feeding back to us
all the time what obstacles the reps are facing so that we can provide them
with training where necessary."

Last year, reps were given training in telephone techniques because they
were increasingly having to arrange meetings with potential customers rather
than rely on cold calling. When Hopkins arrived at the company in 1996, there
were 80 reps compared with the 360 today. "With the phenomenal growth
we’ve had, we’ve had to make sure that they are being looked after properly by
the sales managers," he says.

Lawson’s department has provided them with essential people management
skills to meet this need, He says.

In October, the company moves to a building five times bigger than its
existing premises. The training team will be adopting the title of "Stress
Busters" to ensure the move goes smoothly. This will involve giving guided
tours of the site beforehand, producing a special newsletter and making sure
there is a gift awaiting everyone on their arrival. As Lawson says, "We
are good at the hard project management tasks, but equally skilled with the
softer issues of change management."

The phenomenal growth of the company inevitably puts strains on the way it
is run. As managing director Law says, "The danger is that you become so
big that you become isolated and distant."

But the aim of "growing like crazy", from the company mission statement,
is partly borne out of the fact that it nearly went into receivership in 1991
after recording losses of £5m on sales of £12m. "Many of us have lived
through that and know how bad things can be," says Law.

"Two or three years ago, we were a good company trying to become great.
Now we are a great company trying to be outstanding. We are not there yet
because there are still things we need to improve."

The sales target for 2003 is £203m, and Forrest is in no doubt this will be
achieved. "They are real go-getters, but I’m sure they would be the first
to say that they haven’t a hope of getting there without all this
training."

This article first appeared in the July 2001 edition of Training magazine.  To subscribe click here.

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