Building bridges: How to share ideas across business groups

What does a business that makes polymer products for industrial applications and a business that makes vinyl siding for residential use have in common? On the surface, not much. But a second look shows that they employ injection molding – the shaping of plastic resins into useful objects – in their manufacturing processes.

By Jean-François Phelizon, Saint-Gobain Corp. May 15, 2007

What does a business that makes polymer products for industrial applications and a business that makes vinyl siding for residential use have in common? On the surface, not much. But a second look shows that they employ injection molding — the shaping of plastic resins into useful objects — in their manufacturing processes.

Let’s look at another example of two disparate businesses that produce vastly different products. One produces abrasive products for the industrial, construction and automotive markets. The other manufactures Fiberglass insulation for comfort heating and cooling duct systems. While the final products are completely different, the two plants actually share similar processes that involve glass fibers in the early stages of production.

Saint-Gobain Corp., the $8.5 billion North American regional business of the global industrialist, Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, focuses on three main sectors of activity at its nearly 200 plants: construction products, packaging and high-performance materials. From these businesses come thousands of products that serve markets ranging from aerospace to automotive and construction to chemical. The large number of differing products can make cooperation among the ‘sister’ businesses seem impossible.

Yet that is what Saint-Gobain does every day through a process we call ‘bridgebuilding.’ We have given our businesses the directive to cooperate, share, interact and join forces. Whether it is technology, product design, research and development or human resources, we strongly encourage our businesses to look for synergistic ways that they can do things better.

Although the idea of synergy, or bridgebuilding, has been a part of the company culture for several decades, we put a stronger emphasis on it since the year 2000. It could be defined as the interaction of discrete businesses, so that the total effect is greater than the sum of the individual units. It can be applied not only to the manufacturing component of a business, but also to a wide variety of activities that might include:

  • Site sharing

  • Maintenance

  • Transportation

  • Cross-company sales and marketing

  • Distribution strategies

  • Purchasing

  • Safety training

  • Total quality management

    • Leverage power of communications

      Saint-Gobain found that the best way to get the ball rolling for the bridgebuilding initiative is through the power of communications. After searching for good examples of cooperation between businesses, we publicize them through employee communications vehicles such as newsletters, magazines and the company’s corporate and business unit intranets. Rather than talking about bridgebuilding in abstract concepts, we find that it is much more effective to tell real stories of solid sharing and cooperation.

      That way, our 24,000 employees throughout the United States and Canada can see exactly how it is done. It is idea sharing at its finest. The key is to be doggedly consistent in communicating by every means possible. This persistence has paid off. We’ve gone from looking high and low for bridgebuilding examples to being proactively contacted by businesses that proudly tell their stories to their other sister companies.

      One good example that undoubtedly inspired some of our businesses is the cooperative effort among Saint-Gobain High-Performance Refractories in Worcester, MA; Saint-Gobain Structural Ceramics in Niagara Falls, NY; and Saint-Gobain’s Ceramics business in Rodental, Germany. Managers worked together for months on development, technical support, manufacturing, administration and marketing to develop a unique product. The result: the manufacture of 38,000 ceramic plates to reinforce vests worn by U.S. soldiers in Iraq to protect them against enemy fire.

      In another instance, damage to a Fiberglass furnace at the Wichita Falls, TX, facility of Saint-Gobain Vetrotex America provided to be more severe than first thought. However, because Vetrotex and the Cohart Refractories operation in Buckhannon, WV, part of Saint-Gobain’s ceramics and plastic business, had been talking with each other, the bricks needed for the repair were in inventory, ready for such an emergency. More than 250 refractory bricks were quickly shipped and the tank was back in production in a record five days.

      Personal interaction

      Just as important as actively communicating examples of bridgebuilding are our field dinners, which are held several times a year in different regions of North America. At these dinners, we invite key managers from every Saint-Gobain business within a certain radius who represent activities that include manufacturing, R&D, sales, credit and finance and HR. Before each dinner, each business puts out a display that illustrates the product and mission of their business. It is an excellent opportunity for networking.

      This is followed by a dinner seating chart that could be described as the polar opposite of seating at a typical wedding. We deliberately seat people together who probably do not know each other, who come from diverse businesses and who work in completely different areas of their companies.

      We strongly encourage each person to interact as much as possible with those at their table to learn and share information. While conversations may not get down to specifics, the initial contact is made that often leads to subsequent communication.

      Worldwide, Saint-Gobain also encourages gatherings of employees involved in specific functions, who meet regularly to share problem-solving approaches. Recently, the communications managers from each business gathered for a global conclave in Paris, for example.

      The legal, R&D, environment, health & safety and HR managers also meet at least once a year to look for ways to strengthen their companies, their customer support and their service to employees and the public at large.

      Saint-Gobain’s emphasis on bridgebuilding will continue in the years ahead, based on the success so far. We are proud of the fact that we have not had to create elaborate programs to implement the bridgebuilding initiative but rather have seen our employees step up to the plate, empowered, to work together for the well-being of Saint-Gobain. Our growth in sales and operating profit in our region in the last several years is proof enough that this is one effort that is paying off.

      Author Information
      Jean-Fran%%CBOTTMDT%%ois Phelizon is President and Chief Executive Officer of Saint-Gobain Corporation, and Senior Vice President and General Delegate for the U.S. and Canada for Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, one of the top 100 industrial companies in the world. He joined Saint-Gobain in 1973 and has held executive positions throughout the world. He assumed his current position in 2000. A graduate ofÉcole des Hautes Études Commerciales, Paris, France, he holds a Ph.D. in economic science. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Manufacturers.