How an Atlanta builder created a work place for profit and productivity. By Roberta Maynard

It was a seminar by a Lockheed Martin engineer on the principles of lean thinking that got Robert White thinking about his offices in Marietta, Ga. He was interested in enhancing productivity by managing workflow, but his existing location made meaningful change problematic. The older building offered neither flexibility nor growing room for the expanding company. With 40-some employees packed into 6,000 square feet of space on three floors, it didn't take him long to conclude that the workspace was far from conducive to smoothing out the wrinkles in the operation's process.

So, White, president of Venture Homes, set about finding new space. Pamela Montgomery, Venture's vice president of administration, recalls looking at offices that were too dark, too sterile, too formal, or just too businesslike. "We thought that the most important thing was to create an atmosphere that would bring [employees] pleasure every day," she says.

Unable to find such an atmosphere ready-made, White acquired a 10-acre parcel on Rt. 75, a major Atlanta thoroughfare, and began plans to build on a third of the land. The 25,000-square-foot brick building that would house the company's offices as well as a small design center provided a clean slate for White to address workflow and also accommodated the company's 20 percent annual growth.

"I really like the challenge of organizational management," says White. "I like to see people flourish." Key to this, he believes, is a workspace that encourages cooperation and communication, and that meant involving all 45 employees in the planning. Doing so was never in question, according to Montgomery. "We didn't think twice about it. Our company culture is part of empowerment and inclusion; Bob believes in investing in his people."

Fresh Start

In planning the layout, she and White considered who worked with whom. In a questionnaire, they asked employees for suggestions about improving their particular piece of the process. They studied everyone's need for access to printers, copiers, and house files and noted whose work required surface space, and which groups needed to be co-located for easy collaboration. They asked whether workers preferred cubicles, offices, or a bullpen, which groups needed privacy (it was human resources), and they gauged each group's tolerance for noise.

At a company-wide meeting, White unveiled the plans. The result was an office for everyone, but an open one: 14-foot ceilings with skylights and 8-foot office walls with windows bring in natural light. Murals by a local artist, placed at the entryway to various departments, depict the type of work done there, and inspirational quotes pepper the walls. The lunchroom is made to look like a French cafegrave; overlooking the ocean. Instead of nameplates at each office, a photo showing the employee at play is inscribed with the person's life's motto, providing a brief introduction to each person.

The layout follows the flow of work with shared meeting space where it's needed; for example, in the area where the design, purchasing, and construction departments work. The land staff has easy access to construction, and the accounting and purchasing departments are adjacent to one another.

People Plus Process

Victoria Werman, who specializes in integrated company operations at Marietta-based Lockheed, talked with White about his reengineering of Venture's processes. Until they talked, she says, he didn't fully appreciate the value of involving his employees.

"He was so wrapped up in the architectural aspect of it that he missed the most important aspect of what he did," Werman says. "The issue isn't how do you get everyone a window. He followed through on a commitment to them. A good portion of employers don't."

Co-locating people, for example, may address efficiency, but it's not the entire equation, she says. It doesn't respond to the culture piece. "Every day those people come in, they see a daily monument to his commitment to them. He got them engaged in the process. That's what they want."

The new space has boosted Venture's performance. The company, which built nearly 450 homes last year, had customer satisfaction ratings for closing and warranty at 98.2 percent. Quality control standards for delivery, says White, have consistently come in at 100 percent.

"We don't have nearly as many meetings to fix things; we have meetings to plan," says White. And since moving in a year ago, Montgomery has found the new office helps with recruitment. "It's very easy for me. When I bring people in, they're automatically comfortable here.

To learn more, try these books:

Lean Thinking, Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, by James Womack and Daniel Jones

Leadership in the New Science, by Margaret J. Wheatley, published by Kellner-Roger and Wheatley

BIG BUILDER Magazine, March 2002