Why the crew at Web Converting -- from top managers to shift workers -- is meeting for an hour every week just to read

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James Wilborn, a machine operator, was shifting in his chair, looking a little uncomfortable under the conference room lights and the scrutiny of his 13 blue-denimed coworkers. All he'd done was comment on a passage in this book they were reading -- saying how maybe it was better to be part of a team of outstanding individuals than part of an outstanding team. Just something he thought. You could argue it either way.

Which is what the men surrounding him did. I don't think so, said the guy on top of the filing cabinet; people lose too much peripheral vision if they're not focused on becoming an outstanding group. What about Michael Jordan? said someone else. Great basketball player, but no team championship [as this goes to press]. Said yet another guy, drumming on his knee with a yellow highlighter pen: outstanding groups have to have outstanding individuals, don't they? Listeners nodded. There were more comments, then a brief lull, and then Wilborn was off the hook. It was the next person's turn to talk about a passage that interested him.

It was your typical Thursday afternoon at Web Converting Inc., in the Dallas suburb of Cedar Hill, Tex., though by most companies' standards it wasn't very typical at all -- at first glance, it seemed downright weird. Every Thursday at 4 p.m. the shouts start echoing through the 40,000-square-foot plant: "C'mon, boys, time to read!" Machine operators and production workers step away from their jobs to convene in the plant's narrow windowless meeting room and read a book, aloud, on company time.

And on that day the book being read was Leadership Is an Art, a collection of musings on leadership and teamwork by Max De Pree, chairman of employee-owned and oft-commended furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. Weird. And not just to an outsider. It was weird to the Web crew, too -- at first. "Different," says 19-year-old machine operator Steve Bailey diplomatically. "I thought he was crazy," recalls a blunter Mark Cox, a 31-year-old maintenance worker, of the moment when the plant's production manager said he'd like all the workers to read a book together and share their thoughts about it.

But that was last year, and since then the line workers have overcome the initial anxiety about reading for an audience. They now seem to welcome the break of sitting elbow to elbow, working through a chapter a week, talking about the ideas De Pree raises -- how everyone has the right and duty to influence decision making; what meaningful work and controlling your destiny mean; whether you'd rather be in a group of outstanding individuals or part of an outstanding group.

"Once we go in there and do it, a lot of good ideas come out," says Bailey. "A lot of it is just the process of getting the thoughts going." Says Cox: "It helped my relationships, sitting around talking about things. We have to get along at this place; if we get a last-minute order, we can't have people lagging behind. We all have to get to it. And that happens here -- the atmosphere is different." Different, indeed. And made so, its beneficiaries argue, largely by the simple act of reading a book.

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Consider the traditional ways that most companies use books. There are textbooks for training, and manuals for establishing rules. The CEO might read a book on quality or leadership or marketing every now and then -- or even regularly and methodically -- in an attempt to cull ideas that will help locate a customer or unite a management team. At most companies, when the books have been read they're set on a shelf, where, almost always, they stay.

Other companies do more. At these the books may be sporadically shared, informally or formally, among executives -- who may explore the ideas together.

But then there are companies -- Web Industries Inc., a $20-million contract manufacturer with 210 employees at six sites, is one -- that have found a way to put books to still more powerful and radical use. From the business fable Zapp! (set in the Normal Company of Normalburg, USA) to De Pree's more philosophical Leadership, books at Web have provided a floor for companywide debate about everything from internal relationships to what makes for better customer service. Forget the image of the isolated president holed up in his inner sanctum, reading to increase his individual competence -- at Web, books are bought in bulk, passed hand to hand, photocopied, put on meeting agendas, and read out loud. At Web Converting, the Cedar Hill unit, the books are read by the entire production crew.

There are two reasons, says Robert Fulton, Web's founder and president, "that books play maybe the major role in the change-of-thinking process going on here." The first is predictable: books have helped get lots of people thinking about the same concern at the same time. By introducing a book on a carefully chosen subject, Fulton can concentrate his company's attention on areas of trouble or opportunity -- teamwork, say, or customer service. (Want to do the same? See "The Smart CEO's Reading List" [July 1991, [Article link]] -- consensus recommendations of the best business books, both classic and new, organized by category of interest. They picks are drawn from interviews with some 50 well-read leaders of fast-growing companies.)

The second reason books matter at Web is more subtle. Because it can be so focused and unthreatening, a book-based discussion -- it almost doesn't matter what book is involved -- makes it possible for employees at every level to talk about internal issues they would otherwise never touch. (Try bringing up the idea of "meaningful work" without a book as a vehicle, and see how far that conversation goes.) Depersonalize an issue -- use a book as "a neutral third party," as Charles Edmunson, Web's vice-president of manufacturing, would say -- and problems aren't so hard to tackle. What's more, Web has discovered that the very process of reading and talking about books, no matter what the subject, breeds a kind of trust, respect, and teamwork that yields not only profound intangible benefits but benefits measurable in dollars and cents.

To be sure, Web's journey into books has been made possible in large part because Fulton is a voracious reader. He often has five books going at a time -- he recently was working on one about breaking apathy, three about culture, and one on Christianity. Over the last 15 years he estimates he's read about 750 books and given away 200 or so every year.

"I was an absolutely terrible student," says Fulton, "other than the fact that I loved to read. I suppose I try to pass that on to other people." Not only that, but "he's sort of our resident book critic, scanning what's available that might apply to what we do," says Donald Romine, the company's executive VP.

Fulton has a history of buying favorite books by the dozen and passing them out to everyone from other managers to line workers to his banker, but he began distributing books somewhat more systematically back in 1988. That was three years after the now 21-year-old company, which primarily is in the business of cutting wide rolls of plastic and textiles into narrower rolls for manufacturing customers, became 20% employee-owned through an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP. (Fulton says the company will eventually be 100% employee-owned.) According to Edmunson, he and Fulton had realized by 1988 that "we hadn't done much to make the ESOP meaningful." They had hoped it would create a new vigor among the new owner-employees but eventually understood that to make that happen they'd need to do more than just hand out financial statements.

Edmunson, then in an executive MBA program at Georgia State University, was reading Organizational Culture and Leadership, by Edgar H. Schein. He gave a copy of the book to Fulton, who read it and passed it on to other members of the corporate staff. Schein's gift to them was a new language -- one that helped Web's leaders begin to articulate the attitudes of participation and teamwork they were already theoretically committed to.

Other books furthered the process. The "Participative Premises" chapter in De Pree's Leadership was used to clarify the ideas that managers had been discussing informally -- ideas calling for employees to exercise vastly more control over their jobs and the company's daily operations. "People sort of thought that way already," says Edmunson, "but it wasn't conscious; we hadn't taken a stand. We needed to. The way Bob Fulton put it was, we're not looking to change our culture, we're looking to make who we are more deliberate."

Whenever Fulton and Edmunson found a book that excited them, they'd send it to the 12 corporate and plant managers before quarterly planning meetings and biyearly production-manager meetings. "Every meeting is usually kicked off with reflections from Bob, who takes a half hour to describe what he's been thinking about," says Edmunson. "Typically he'll pull out a book and just read bits from it." Discussion follows.

It works. At a three-day meeting last January, the focal book was The Fifth Discipline, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology research associate Peter Senge, a dense tome about the need to build "learning organizations." The meeting's first day was devoted to discussing the principles of leverage, shared vision, and teamwork as outlined in the book; the second day was used to address how people learn and how leaders ought to lead, Senge-style. Not until the third day did the meeting delve into company financial matters and the more typical discussions about increasing sales and improving collections.

"That book in particular," says Daniel Ott, VP of sales, about The Fifth Discipline, "has created a vocabulary around here." Action science, learning organization, and localness have been added to phrases from other books, such as moments of truth (borrowed from Jan Carlzon's book of that name). "We all now have an instant picture about what we mean by moments of truth: the window of opportunity we have when customers interact with our company," says executive VP Romine. That shared language has made it easier for Web managers to invent and agree on both broad goals and the actions needed to meet them.

As a result, plant managers are being encouraged to write vision statements (chapter 11 of The Fifth Discipline) as a step in moving toward shared visions. Employees write thank-you notes to customers who respond to Web's customer service questionnaire (inspired by Moments of Truth). Even an emergency sales meeting was influenced by The Fifth Discipline: with sales slowing, accounts receivable mounting, and cash flow tightening, the sales staff was scheduled to meet and asked to read the section on openness (chapter 13) in preparation. The session started with a discussion about the need to get past the kind of internal politics and game playing described in the chapter. "Salespeople told us it was the best sales meeting they'd ever been to," says Ott.

To be sure, some of the terminology Web has adopted is hokey -- it's a little curious to hear adults talk about the significance of "zapping" people with energy rather than "sapping" them of enthusiasm (the key message of the light novel Zapp!). But while employees concede that the book-promoted language is corny, they take completely seriously the opportunity it provides for raising difficult issues. At one managers' meeting, for instance, people were asked to tell about a time someone at the company zapped them and a time someone sapped them. Texas production manager Todd Pihl turned to Romine and said, "You sapped me two weeks ago."

"I'd visited the plant and really made him feel bad about something," says Romine. "Everyone can remember being demoralized once by his or her manager, feeling put down. So at this meeting we carried on a rather active argument about whether he was too sensitive or I was too tough. Either way, it had adversely affected the way we were working, because we were stuck on how we were mishandling each other."

However silly, "the words become a means of entry into those sorts of conversations," says Ott. "We don't normally engage in sensitivity discussions, but Zapp! gave us a prop." As have the other books Web has mined (see "Web's Key Books," next page). Their common theme? "The value of people," says Mike Holt, general manager at the Cedar Hill facility. When Web turns its managerial attention to profits or quality, books relevant to those subjects will be read.

For now, though, the logic of Web's booklist is clear. "We realized when reading De Pree -- whose company we kind of model ours after -- that although we've always thought of ourselves as being fairly participative, we were really pretty hierarchical," says Edmunson. "The boss called the shots, and things sort of flowed down. We needed to change."

Visible elements of the participative system are falling into place -- employees hire the people they'll be working next to, run committees on improving customer service, visit customer plants, and receive regular and fully explained updates on all the company's finances and the status of their shares and bonuses.

In Cedar Hill it was Todd Pihl, the production manager, who took the reading program to its logical participative extension by sharing the books with line workers. "I came back from a meeting and decided if I'm the only one around here who's learning this stuff, it's not going to help much. If everybody's thinking about these things, we'll be that much more intelligent." Last fall the 14 workers read Zapp! first in sections at home, and after that failed miserably, by taking about 45 minutes between shifts once a week to read a section aloud. Other Web plants have dabbled with reading groups, although none to the same extent. While Fulton concedes that some books might not make it to everyone in the company -- even general managers are having a tough time slogging through The Fifth Discipline -- he avers that over time excerpts probably will.

The payoffs? Since workers in the Cedar Hill plant began reading books together, last August, productivity has improved by as much as 40%, and the facility, though still relatively new, is creeping into profitability. "Some of that is people getting more experience on the equipment," says Pihl, "but some of it is people taking more responsibility and understanding a little more where we're at as a company." Maintenance worker Mark Cox concurs: "That zapping book, it helped us realize some things about handling anger. It really hits home. Before, if we saw someone overworked on a machine, we might have said, 'Gee, he's having a tough time.' But now -- you watch -- people will pitch in pretty quick." De Pree's book, he says, has reinforced what it means to own not just a portion of the company but the company's reputation: "We feel responsible for the whole job," he says, "not just the part we work on."

"We've talked about W. Edwards Deming's 14 points of management," says Cedar Hill general manager Mike Holt, "which said that most problems at work aren't the fault of the guy doing it but of the guy who explained how it's done." Self-awareness -- spurred by books -- can be the first step toward breaking that pattern. Says Bob Fulton: "Books can help encourage change because books can be nonthreatening. It's not like a new program that we want everybody to buy into; if you just start spreading the books around so people have something to talk about, those books can change how we perceive things and how we do things."


Zapp! The Lightning of Empowerment by William C. Byham with Jeff Cox (Harmony Books, 1988)

Moments of Truth by Jan Carlzon (Harper & Row, 1989)

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Managers by Stephen R. Covey (Simon & Schuster, 1989)

The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge (Doubleday, 1990)

Leadership Is an Art by Max De Pree (Doubleday, 1989)

Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar H. Schein (Jossey-Bass, 1985) n