Creative AI Approaches for Whole-System Culture Change

Author: Amanda Trosten-Bloom , Diana Whitney

Corporation for Positive Change
Golden, CO United States
Date 08/16/2001


Hunter Douglas Window Fashions Division is a 1000-person manufacturing company in Broomfield, CO. The largest and most profitable Division of Hunter Douglas International, the Window Fashions Division (WFD) innovates, manufactures, and fabricates high-end window covering products. Having experienced off-the-chart growth during its first ten years of business (27 people in 1985 to nearly 1000 in 1998), the Division made the decision to reorganize into separate business units – one per product.

At the same time, the WFD lost a number of key players to other parts of the HD organization, as HD North America promoted several high-level leaders with extensive knowledge of the WFD business.

The result of these concurrent events was a seemingly sudden and unexpected confusion over the WFD vision; lack of experienced leadership at the top; reduction of ‘bench strength’; and more noticeable communication gaps (from leadership to the general workforce, as well as across business units and functions). All of this was accompanied by diminishing levels of initiative in the workforce, increasing turnover, and decrease in employee satisfaction and productivity.


In the first six months of the engagement, we conducted an Appreciative Inquiry with half of the existing workforce, along with a large representative sample of customers, suppliers, and community members. This inquiry ended with a 100-person Appreciative Inquiry Summit.

In the second six months, we implemented the innovations that were initiated at the first Summit, while conducting an inquiry with the balance of the workforce (an additional 500 people). These parallel processes culminated in the Division’s first-ever Strategic Planning Summit. At this gathering, a group of 125 employees (management and line) worked together to identify the Division’s core capabilities, ten-year strategic vision and three-year strategies.

In the second year of the engagement, we continued to implement the AI-based whole-system strategic and business planning process. We modified our approach to involve even more employees and stakeholders, to drive planning deeper into the organization, and to support the Division in transporting best practices across business units.

In the third year of the engagement, we designed and implemented an Appreciative Inquiry-based initiative for business process improvement.

In the fourth year of the engagement, we continued to refine the strategic and business planning processes. In addition, we used Appreciative Inquiry as the means by which we considered and modified the Division’s operating and reporting structures.


Four years into the engagement, the Division’s General Manager and Vice President – Human Resources reflected back on the changes they’d seen and experienced in the Division as a result of the work they had done with Appreciative Inquiry, “In the first year of our work, our production and productivity both improved, they reported, largely as a result of people’s increased participation in problem-solving and decision-making activities. Our operations improvement suggestions were up over 100 percent. This, in turn, had a big impact on both our quality and our internal customer service.”

Relationships between the WFD and other Divisions of Hunter Douglas had also really grown over this same time frame. For example, cross-Divisional collaboration that was initiated by the WFD as part of its initial Appreciative Inquiry resulted in an integrated streamlined customer communication process for all of Hunter Douglas. Under the WFD’s leadership, the larger organization was starting to build relationships between the quality and customer service functions throughout North America, again using the tools that were learned through the Division’s work with Appreciative Inquiry.

When the company undertook the challenges of ISO 9001 registration and conversion to an Enterprise Resource Planning system, they observed, “The transitions were infinitely more doable because of Appreciative Inquiry.”

Research conducted within this organization in early 1998 confirmed positive changes since commencement of the Division’s Appreciative Inquiry, in such areas as:

– Employees’ understanding of organizational goals

– Employees’ understanding of how their work fits with the organization’s goals

– Employee commitment to the organization’s goals

– Employees’ sense of ownership for their work

– Employees’ motivation to be productive, innovative, and creative

In 2001, the Division estimated over $3.5 million in savings, as a result of AI-based business process improvements during the previous 12 months. An employer of choice in the local marketplace, the Division has continued to attract and retain quality staff during a time of record local unemployment. “Employee retention is the best it’s ever been,” reports the HR Vice President, “despite years of record low national and local unemployment. People are staying and learning and growing. They’re digging in and continuously improving – in some cases, reinventing their work processes. In part because they’re more skilled, they’re also more empowered and more accountable. The Division is simply a different place than it was when we began our efforts.”

Part of how they accomplished this is through a remarkable combination of benefits and programs that have been designed and implemented within the past several years by front line employees:

– A state-of-the-art new hire orientation that includes introduction to all areas of the company and a buddy system (to help people make relationships and learn the ropes during their early weeks of employment).

– An in-house career planning function, which offers an option to participate in a formal mentoring program.

– Alternative work schedules have replaced the mandatory overtime that was everyone’s nemesis four years ago. Flex time, telecommuting, and other customized work programs now support employees in balancing the demands of work and family.

– An employee-administered values-based reward and recognition program, which pays employees $250 for “above and beyond” demonstration of one of the Division eight core values. (This same program offers a cumulative reward: for employees who are recognized numerous times for demonstration of all eight values are eligible for a paid sabbatical, several months of time off for professional development, community service, or formal education.)

– Hunter Douglas University (HDU), which is an on-site Corporate Learning Center that offers on-site professional and personal development classes, both accredited and non-accredited. HDU includes meeting space, a computer laboratory, a library, and attached classrooms that are large enough to house the meetings of 100+ people that the Division sponsors several times a year.

In part as a result of these changes, in early 2002 the Division will launch its first non-window covering product. This product’s birth can be traced to the 1998 strategic planning Summit, during which a non-leadership participant articulated the possibility that the Division’s bonded fabric technology might be leveraged for use outside of the window coverings industry. This product will be the foundation for the new division that they are spinning off. They’re shopping for another campus for this new division – even as they wrap up construction on this campus’ fifth building.

Online Resources:
Corporation for Positive Change
Hunter Douglas, Inc
Graph showing Decreased Turnover at Hunter Douglas
Graph showing the Increased Employee Participation at Hunter Douglas

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