Alcoa Multinational Takes the A3 Route
Wednesday, 24. July 2002

An executive from the giant American Alcoa aluminium corporation today emphasized the need for community involvement and accountability. The multinational, which has 129,000 employees in 38 countries and annual sales of $23 billion, had gone through a ‘fundamental change over the past 10 years,’ said Don Cowles who till last year was President of Alcoa’s distribution business. Cowles, from Richmond, Virginia, was speaking at the business conference ‘Globalization : from conflict to opportunity’ being held at the Initiatives of Change centre in Caux, Switzerland.

An executive from the giant American Alcoa aluminium corporation today emphasized the need for community involvement and accountability. The multinational, which has 129,000 employees in 38 countries and annual sales of $23 billion, had gone through a ‘fundamental change over the past 10 years,’ said Don Cowles who till last year was President of Alcoa’s distribution business. Cowles, from Richmond, Virginia, was speaking at the business conference ‘Globalization : from conflict to opportunity’ being held at the Initiatives of Change centre in Caux, Switzerland.

‘In the early 1990s we moved to a values-driven model,’ Cowles said. This reflected the Principles for Business published by the Caux Round Table group of senior executives. He saw, in the company’s new values, ‘a reflection of my own faith. It gave me a whole new energy. The stakeholders are the people I serve, including the employees.’ The company had placed greater emphasis on worker participation and ‘Alcoa has distinguished itself with a heightened sense of personal responsibility and accountability’. There would be no compromise in values.

The company claimed the best workplace safety record in America ‘and possibly the world’. It aimed to deliver ‘a global process to be deployed locally’. A safety lesson learnt in a plant in Brazil, for instance, would be communicated world-wide to its 350 facilities within 24 hours. This included any incident that might have the potential to compromise safety. ‘Every employee has a stake in safety,’ Cowles said. ‘The company’s values should be like DNA. They should be so into the bloodstream that the employees don’t know they are doing it.’

As part of its environmental commitment, Alcoa aimed in 1998 to plant a million trees in six continents in 10 years. But the target was expected to be achieved next year, he said. When it comes to community involvement, the company gives $ 250 to any charity for which any employee gives 50 hours of service. If 10 or more employees form a team and implement a day-long project to help a local charity, that charity receives $3,000. In 2001, the company and its foundation donated $52 million in 2,000 grants in 26 countries.

He took the conference participants through what Alcoa calls its A3 exercise for problem solving. Teams of employees are given an A3 sheet of paper, folded twice to give four A5 panels, and a pencil so that anything written can be changed. They write on each panel : ‘Problem/opportunity’ ; ‘Current condition’ ; ‘Target condition/goal’ ; ‘Action plan’. This challenged the employees to admit to the problem and assess it, including acknowledging ‘how could I have tolerated this for so long ?’, and led to ‘aspirations and visions that satisfy the soul’, Cowles claimed. The action typically included the recognition that ‘you need the co-operation of someone not sitting at your table.’ Employees do the A3 exercise to improve safety, plan community service or in any aspect of their work.

Cowles said that Alcoa had set its environmental goals for 2020, including no waste to landfill sites and no waste that would pollute rivers. How would the company achieve this ? It didn’t fully know. But by announcing such ‘severe accountability’ it was telling the public, ‘Hold us accountable.’

Mike Smith

See Conference Report

X