Connecting the Front Line to the Bottom Line

RLG International
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

RLG International is a consulting firm with a unique approach to performance improvement through a focus on workforce engagement and Critical Path execution. Since 1983, RLG has been successfully engaging front line workers on operational and capital projects to deliver dramatic and visible performance improvement. It is proud of its reputation for integrity and does not take on a project if there is no opportunity for significant measurable progress.
Understanding the service that RLG International provides requires the knowledge of what it does not do. RLG drives step change improvements in the execution of strategic plans, but it is not involved in reorganizations; it does not do any downsizing and it does not do mergers and acquisitions. Its clients already have a plan, a process and a team that is looking to deliver more out of its resources, its people and its skills. RLG helps clients leverage existing resources, capability and experience to deliver aggressive improvement targets.

“Our observation globally, is that there is a huge opportunity to engage those front line people, the people that do the work every single day and understand the minutia of what gets in the way of perfect,” says Brad Farrow, the president and chief executive officer of RLG International.

There are thousands of everyday processes that employees work around or work into regular activities that are less than efficient and present opportunities for improvement. Front line employees are essentially trained not to change or fix anything that does not cause a problem. RLG takes advantage of front line insights and experience that can identify opportunities to help deliver improved performance – often possibilities that can only be found by engaging that front line.

Key performance indicators (KPI) are measurable values that track performance, identify opportunities and help align all parts of a high performing team. RLG helps clients identify and track a variety of KPIs, at all levels of an organization, to measure success based on specific business goals and targets. Quality KPIs and engaged employees will provide clients insight into where performance improvements can and should be made.

The primary way in which RLG assists with critical KPIs is by working to align the senior delivery objectives, the front line execution and all the steps in the middle. Front line employees are often expected (and directed) to follow lists of tasks from upper management, as opposed to being engaged in the outcomes required for excellence in delivery, while the senior executive staff are promising outcomes to their clients without fully understanding the tasks. RLG is an expert in establishing a clear connection between the various functions, teams and departments that all contribute to the final product and they are able to do it quite quickly, with employee input, commitment and oversight.

Common critical KPIs include lowering a product’s cost per unit to increase production, KPIs for safety, and construction schedule delivery. “When we commit to partnership with a client we will find ten percent improvement ahead of plan in the best-run organizations. In those that are inconsistent in performance or have not committed to a rigorous, continuous improvement effort before, there could be anywhere between twenty and forty percent opportunity to improve the plans,” says Brad.

RLG finds more efficiency in projects by studying the critical path, identifying contingency plans, reviewing simultaneous operations system (SIMOPS) and driving a detailed risk assessment of critical project line items and activities. In ongoing operations, RLG examines downtimes, cycle times, cost per unit, logistics and all of the interfaces that come with any ongoing production operation. Engaging maintenance and operations as partners in delivery brings these disciplines together rather than reinforcing independent ownership “silos” of discrete activities. Once a project or operations team is aligned and practicing team-based problem solving and action planning, the team focus will shift toward specific outcomes, instead of focusing on a series of tasks. The RLG process helps companies increase their opportunity to deliver to customer’s higher quality projects and products at a lower cost and with a measurable decrease in non-productive downtime.

RLG always works with the front line of the project to lessen or eradicate the risks that are built into the thousands of separate activities that make up a project. The front line workers and contractors engaged in the process always have useful ideas that can be brought into play based on years of experience across multiple industries. The client company’s leadership together with RLG’s engagement facilitates an environment where the contractors and their employees increasingly take ownership for tasks, the ultimate targeted outcomes and risk identification on a project.

RLG International has approximately two hundred employees working on capital projects and ongoing operations in various industry sectors. It currently has ongoing work with twenty-five multinational companies that are primarily in the downstream, midstream and upstream sectors of the oil and gas industry, where it strives to improve the times and costs of drilling, production, chemical processing and construction. RLG also works on projects within the mining and forestry industries, and in recent years, it has also moved into manufacturing facilities through the automotive and aerospace industries. When RLG works on a capital project in which a client has invested a large amount of money, the most essential priority is the deadline and the critical path to get it there. Time is indeed money.

RLG International is headquartered in Vancouver, BC, yet 170 of its two hundred employees are dispersed around the world working with clients in Canada, the United States, Australia, Europe and southeast Asia. RLG’s team assesses projects around the world, and when fully engaged will embed a team on site, within the client’s organization. Thirteen of RLG’s employees are currently working on a new $40 billion construction project in Kazakhstan, where a global company has partnered with the local national oil company to build the large facility that will service central and eastern Europe. Having completed the assessment phase over a two-month period, RLG has now been contracted to lead the implementation of this multiyear “mega” project.

Assessments generally take between a few weeks and a few months. Depending on the size of the project, it usually does not take long to identify what the opportunities for improvement are, but to fully appreciate a company’s culture and co-develop a tailored improvement plan, more time is taken. The assessment is used to identify which leading and lagging KPIs are the most crucial and what actions are needed to create step-change improvement. During the implementation phase, the selected team of RLG performance coaches works with the client anywhere between twelve to twenty-four months. Therefore, RLG does not require any field offices as its employees are working directly in the clients’ spaces.

To remain united, the company has virtual meetings with all its employees and can collaborate successfully using the internet and telephone. It has its own SharePoint internal website that helps all staff stay connected and offers a full set of tools and resources that keep all employees informed. Although dispersed globally, RLG International brings employees together multiple times a year in smaller groups to offer the chance to build skills, strengthen the RLG team and to share experiences in person.

RLG has an annual celebration to recognize the best work done in the company by its employees. This Best of the Best award ceremony is used as a model for excellence in the years to come and provides a platform to both celebrate and learn from the strongest examples of RLG-client partnerships to produce substantial improvements in results and culture. Clients join the fun and speak of their experiences, results and learnings. The client experiences and successes achieved have earned RLG long-term partnerships with many of its clients.

Notably, RLG has been a recipient of the Canada’s Best Managed Companies award eleven times in its history. “We are really committed to our people. We don’t have many contractors; nearly all of our people are employees,” says Brad. “As a matter of fact, most of them are shareholders. We believe strongly in sharing the rewards, and one of the ways is to make sure that all employees have an opportunity to invest in the company.”

RLG does not have any outside investors; it is an employee-owned company by design, and shareholders are required to be employees. Over 160 out of the two hundred employees are employee-owners. For those employees moving on to retirement or departure from the company, all shares are bought back, and available for new employees to join the ranks of “ownership”.

As the projects became more limited during the recent economic downturn, RLG continued to invest in its employees and often included twice as many employees on projects as it was paid for. The company made use of any extra time by improving its own knowledge management and also for additional employee training. This sacrifice was well worth it. Although the recession temporarily ate into the company’s margins, RLG was able to keep many long-term employees and ensured the company’s capability and expertise would be available when the marketplace turned around.

In the last twelve months, RLG has started growing as a company once again, and in the last six months, it has been actively hiring ahead of demand as it sees new projects returning. “The next quarter will be the best quarter we’ve had in two and a half years, and our margins have already improved back to something we are quite pleased with. We’re in good shape, and we have a number of new “mega” projects on the go,” says Brad.

This truly is an international company; its employees hold passports from more than ten countries and speak just as many languages. If the company makes plans to work in a predominantly Spanish area, it makes sure to supply project managers who speak Spanish fluently. As a global company, with international operations and employees, there are many multilingual performance coaches in the company, ready for international assignments. When working with front line workers, it is important to understand the culture and to speak the language of the workforce.

“It’s a commitment from us that we will work as quickly as we can to bring our people up to speed with the client’s business and the challenges that they face, and then to be able to work at the front line of their organization, because that is the critical part of what we do. I believe this is one of our unique and competitive advantages and one of distinct features that separates us from any other organization,” says Brad.

The service that RLG provides is really about complementing and multiplying the skills and strengths of the client team that is already working on the project. “Our people are not trying to be smarter than our clients. They already have smart people; they have great engineers and great leaders,” says Brad. RLG works with many talented individuals to build up the skills within the team to solve problems and drive improvement of the overall outcomes.

Clients enjoy the painless consulting process that RLG offers. Client employees are never let go because of RLG’s work, and the team is empowered as a whole, which is what makes people of all levels of the organization feel fortunate to have RLG as a consultant.

RLG does not take on a project if does not see the possibility of seeing tangible results within three to four months, and will initially focus on areas that will deliver cost savings quickly. As proof that RLG believes in the capabilities of its services, it offers to put its own money at risk and gives clients the option of paying its full fee or allowing it to take a stake in the outcome that is delivered by its services. The confidence of the shared risk option helps clients to feel more secure about the service.

“Every construction project is a puzzle, it is a collection of thousands of moving pieces, and as we take them apart in the planning process, and then put them back together in the execution phase, there is space everywhere for improvement,” says Brad. “We look at the critical path activities and ask, how can we manage, mitigate and eliminate the risks, who can we count on, and what is possible? On every project, the puzzle comes together,” making the picture much clearer, the work more organized and the results a “Best Ever” performance. Everyone is a winner.



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