When Mark Spear left Alcoa to join Miller Brewing Co. in 1996, he couldn't help notice a subtle irony between the jobs. At Alcoa, Spear managed the aluminum giant's training and development for its global research and development facility. "We were training people in highly technical subject matter like polymer extrusion coating technology," Spear says, "so coming to Miller was a logical career progression. I went from can sheet to what goes into the can."
Spear's 8-and-a-half years at Alcoa left him with indelible convictions regarding the worth of business literacy. Part of his job was to help employees realize how "pie-in-the-sky" concepts that only Alcoa scientists and engineers ostensibly had interest in must add value up and down the organizational chain. "Rather than bowl people over with open-book management concepts, we tried to make the business palatable to people from where they sat," he says.
"Understanding aluminum at the molecular level can be made to sound pretty cool, and I think one of the foundations of changing an organization is having people really understand the business, where they add value to it and how they impact the bottom line."
Such experience has served Spear well in his role as director of management and organizational development at Milwaukee-based Miller and its seven nationwide breweries. His team's focus, he says, is nothing short of helping the country's second largest brewer reinvent itself by changing its corporate culture. Spear admits this is a tall order considering limited beer industry growth and a 146-year-old tradition of "the way we've always done things."
The foundation for changing Miller's culture, says Spear, is to engage Miller's workforce in the inner workings of the business and raise awareness of the value chain. With such widespread operations, as well as being the smallest sibling in the formidable Philip Morris family of companies, such change can seem like trying to put wheels on a glacier.
"You can't separate the business from the organization," says Spear. "We're coming from a very traditional, very entrenched structure where people's functional knowledge is 14 miles deep but not very wide, and until our people better understand the broad business and how they add value up and downstream in relationships with the distributors, consumers and suppliers, it's hard to move the organization forward."
Fundamental to getting Miller's employees to comprehend the business and appreciate their roles is to demonstrate that no matter where they work, from the brewery floor to the sales office, all employees do in fact make significant business decisions all the time. The key, says Spear, is to help people make that essential connection between cause and effect and establish a value chain that's perceivable to everyone in the organization. This was a principle driver behind the development of Brewery Business Understanding, a business literacy program targeted at hourly workers and their supervisors.
Spear and a team representing each brewery laid out all aspects of costs in operating a brewery. Those costs were then translated into a simple "slide rule" tool that could, for instance, show a brewery worker the economic impact of dropping and shattering a pallet of beer bottles. Training with the slide rule, which Spear calls "fun and fast paced," currently is taking place in Miller's breweries. "Some breweries are further along than others," he says, "but we're encouraged by the results."
Spear started another literacy program for the salaried workforce called Business Understanding, which involves tailored business literacy maps designed in partnership with Root Learning, Perrysburg, Ohio. These graphic-intensive tools are used in visual learning modules that can be administered to numerous levels of an organization.
Groups of eight to 10 employees in cross-functional roles meet with a facilitator in a one-day program that covers four business maps. The first map outlines the customer/consumer/competitor environment; the state of the beer industry both past, present and future; Miller's channels of trade; and the company's social, legal and business challenges.
The second map illustrates Miller's distributor support process, while the third map concerns Miller's foreign, domestic and contract revenue streams, including what percentage of total revenue is allocated to raw materials, packaging, manufacturing costs, taxes, promotions and its financial relationship to Philip Morris. The fourth map concerns the Miller value chain—where employees fit in, how the pieces of the organization work together and what makes or breaks the Miller value chain. The net effect helps employees understand how they shape Miller's business success.
Closely linked with business literacy as a foundation for change, says Spear, is establishing core values for Miller's employees to embrace and making them part of performance management. Conveying these "Values-In-Action" begins with understanding the needs of Miller's consumers and then delivering the highest quality products and services.
Another paramount value that the brewery takes great pride in is innovation for new ideas and fresh approaches and having a passion for results. "We come from a tradition of firsts," says Spear. "We introduced the first nationally distributed light beer, the first draft beer in a bottle, and now we have the first recyclable plastic bottles."
When Spear is not helping Miller change its culture, he and his team focus heavily on leadership development. "We especially look out for up-and-coming talent," he says. "We have a really strong advancement planning process that's not just about filling in the boxes on the organizational chart. It's also about how the process advances the organization."
Spear oversees a core curriculum of functional skill development for the management track at Miller to help advancing employees perform in their new roles. "We try to think about management development from a career life-cycle model," explains Spear. "There are critical stages in our employees' careers where it's necessary to pick up essential skills and absorb some of the key message points that the organization believes in."
As far as community involvement is concerned, the brewery's presence extends well beyond its corporate sponsorship at the dazzling confines of Miller Park, the new home of the Milwaukee Brewers that has taken the baseball world by storm. Spear represents Miller on the board of The Milwaukee Business Performance Network, which is sponsored by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and chaired by a consortium of area businesses.
The performance network's objective is to bring in top thinkers in the business world to advise and assist the business community. "If we can make these key businesses successful, we can raise the living standard in the Milwaukee area," he says. "Being prosperous feeds on itself, so if the businesses are all doing well and growing, so is the community."
For Spear, getting employees to embrace Miller's "Values-In-Action," stay tuned to the inner-workings of the business and industry, and keep their job skills current is easier thanks to the tangible connection the workers feel for the company's flagship product—ice-cold beer. The connection people feel to beer is a bond that fascinates him to the point that he addresses it in new employee orientation.
"There's something fundamental to human existence that is represented in this industry, and people feel very strongly about it," he says. "We are making a product that brings people together. There's history and tradition, and there's this sentiment people have that there is no problem that two friends can't solve over a cold beer. It's our job. We make 'Miller Time.'"