As a technology company, ZF depends a great deal on the ideas its employees dream up. Chief HR Officer Sabine Jaskula explains the ways in which the Group is responding in her area of responsibility to the current upheaval in the automotive industry.

Sabine Jaskula has been a Member of the Board of Management at ZF since early 2019. She is responsible for the HR and Legal Corporate Functions.

Electromobility, autonomous driving and digitalization are leading to sweeping changes in the automotive industry. What impact is this having on employees at ZF, and how is the company dealing with this upheaval?

Years ago, we began to prepare the company for this foreseeable situation by restructuring the organization. We honed our plans in 2018 with the Group strategy “Next Generation Mobility.” It serves as a compass for the company by clearly stating that ZF is putting its focus on the four core fields of electromobility, autonomous driving, Vehicle Motion Control and integrated safety, all of which are linked by digitalization ...

… which, however, only describes the core of the Group strategy.

Right. However, Next Generation Mobility also contains guidance such as starting points for measures that relate to the employees: On the one hand, we need to draw up and operate outstanding business processes throughout the company; on the other hand, we need to rely on methods of agile teamwork where this is possible and makes sense in order to meet the challenge of the transformation.

Why is agile work so important?

Our customers expect us to become faster. Since time is a commodity that is as scarce as it is expensive, we have to make the best possible use of the time available to us. At many points in the company, work can be transferred to teams acting on their own responsibility. This makes us significantly more flexible than if we just work within the usual hierarchically organized line organization.

But it doesn’t end there.

Another advantage of agile working methods is that the progress of the work is frequently checked. This allows us to identify undesirable developments more quickly and achieve the ultimate result faster and with better quality. By breaking the project task up into many small work packages, things like change requests and new requirements can also be easily taken into consideration. In addition, we are observing that employees find the work in project teams more varied, which in turn leads to increased motivation.

Are there other reasons for making a break with the old way of working?

Actually, we are not really making a break with old ways; rather, we are simply adding a new operating system to our tried-and-true work methods. After all, in addition to the automotive customers we have always had, we now also have a growing group of customers we refer to as new automotive customers. These include mobility service providers and new suppliers of electric vehicles, which often do not come from the automotive industry. Because their requirements differ from those of a traditional OEM, we need different processes for them. Agile work methods also help us in this case.

What role do executive managers play in this scenario?

For a start, superiors need to make their employees aware that there can be no more “business as usual” in view of the sea change currently underway in the automotive industry. It’s about using information to reduce any reservations or fears that may exist. Only employees who understand that the transformation also affects them and is part of their working life will be prepared to take new approaches. The topic of agile transformation is therefore also closely associated with changes within management. If we are to remain successful, we need more transparency here than we have had up to this point.

How can this objective be achieved?

Greater transparency is closely linked with modern leadership methods and open communication. We are in the process of refining our understanding of leadership by focusing more on our culture of feedback and learning, among other things. But also by bringing our management development programs up to date. Superiors have to learn to lead virtual teams, provide them with more freedom and manage from a distance.

What is one way that managers can communicate more openly?

To improve the flow of information in our hierarchical organization, we have launched a skip-level initiative. Two to four times a year, our senior management conducts an open dialogue regarding important issues with a smaller group of employees on all levels of the hierarchy. For the participants, this means receiving firsthand information and being able to ask open questions; in return, the speakers get unfiltered feedback and possibly some new perspectives on the topic.

More open communication certainly provides support for change, but is it enough?

No, of course not. We obviously have to help our employees get the qualifications they need to face the new challenges. At ZF, we have been doing this for many years in a training organization that has long since been extended to include online training. We offer advanced training on every imaginable topic, ranging from classroom seminars to webinars and web-based training. Furthermore, we offer our employees around the world access to educational platforms such as LinkedIn Learning or SPEEXX, which contain a great deal of information on a wide variety of topics. This allows our employees to pursue needs-oriented education and expands our educational portfolio. All in all, I feel confident that ZF is coping well with the transformation by investing in the future: in its employees.

“At many points in the company, work can be transferred to teams acting on their own responsibility.”