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intrapreneurs

A meeting at the Winnipeg factory headquarters of the Duha Group. The paint swatch company says its principal competitive advantage is its workplace culture – one that fosters entrepreneurial thinking in every employee.

Who is an intrapreneur? Usually highly self-motivated, proactive and action-oriented people who are comfortable with taking the initiative, even within the boundaries of an organization, in pursuit of an innovative product or service. Read other stories in the series about Telus, Hootsuite, Canadian Tire, Metrolinx, Loblaw, Oil Country Engineering Services and Absolute Software.

Meetings at the Duha Group's Winnipeg factory headquarters are a daily ritual.

Yet these "huddles" are anything but ritualistic. For almost a decade, they've served as a cornerstone of Duha's workplace culture, where employees can freely put forward new ideas – good or bad.

A family business, Duha has deep roots in the prairie city, starting as a printing company in 1948 and evolving into one of the world's leading paint swatch companies. It makes products available in every major home improvement chain that help consumers choose a paint colour before they buy – fan decks, paint samplers and paint samples.

While its competitors have large footprints offshore, reaping the benefits of low-cost labour, more than half of Duha's approximately 600 employees are still based in Winnipeg.

Although technological innovation plays an important role in the firm remaining competitive while maintaining a substantial manufacturing presence in Canada, Duha's principal competitive advantage is its workplace culture – one that fosters entrepreneurial thinking in every employee from the newly hired factory worker to the MBA-educated executive.

"It's built into the job description when you come on board," says Rick Duha, managing director of Duha Group. "That's the core for our employees – to say, 'I own it. How can we make our environment better today?' "

The term "intrapreneurism" has never been specifically discussed at Duha, yet the medium-sized manufacturer has been encouraging entrepreneurial thinking among its work force since 2006.

"Since we've started this initiative we've generated about 19,500 implementations from staff," says Rod Smith, ‎director of operations excellence.

At the heart of Duha's culture is its Passport to World Excellence program. "This is our road map that takes our workers to different levels of competencies of continuous improvement and ownership," Mr. Smith says.

Similar to martial arts, the program awards coloured belts for proficiency in lean management and entrepreneurial thinking. New employees start with a white belt working their way up eventually to a black belt, which indicates a mastery of identifying and implementing innovative ideas.

While not every employee earns a black belt, all workers are expected to contribute ideas and earn new belts. Each section of the company has a white board specifically for employees to jot down ideas, everything from identifying ways to eliminate waste to those "Eureka!" ideas that lead to new revenue streams.

Ideas vary greatly from relatively easy-to-do changes such as colour labeling tools according to department so they do not end up going missing only to be found in other departments, to high effort initiatives such as launching an innovation consulting institute called the Duha Center of Excellence.

Formed two years ago, this separate revenue stream has helped dozens of firms and organizations –including Shell Canada Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc., the University of Manitoba and Investors Group Inc. – implement more enterprising and innovative workplace cultures.

Duha's black-belt trained workers serve as its consultants, having trained more than 3,000 workers across Canada to date.

Yet their work with other companies generates more than additional revenue; it also generates new ideas learned from their experiences with clients.

"[Our workers] come back with new perspectives about how we can do business," Mr. Smith says.

That Duha has never referred to "intrapreneurism" when discussing its corporate culture is hardly surprising because, despite being a buzzword among some corporate executives, the very mention of the word can stir controversy, says University of Calgary marketing professor Derek Hassay.

"Many consider it a bit of an oxymoron," says Dr. Hassay, the RBC professor of entrepreneurial thinking at the Haskayne School of Business.

Even he is reticent to use the term. "I prefer 'entrepreneurial thinking' instead of 'intrapreneurism.' "

Regardless of what a company chooses to call it, intrapreneurism really boils down to innovation.

"It's about the idea of letting your employees know you're open to innovation and encouraging change – that you want people to use their brains," Dr. Hassay says.

Duha's approach to innovation has garnered it recognition from several business organizations, including the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, and the Center for Education and Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mr. Duha prefers to think of the firm's open cultural architecture as one that promotes a kind of "grassroots entrepreneurism" within a large corporation.

It's this inclination for bottom-up idea generation over top-down direction from management that has proven to be Duha's foremost competitive advantage. In fact if the situation had been reversed, Mr. Duha says it's unlikely the company would enjoy the success it does today.

"The reality is that prior to us embarking on this journey all of the ideas came from senior management, but today probably less than 10 per cent do," he says. "Those 19,000 ideas would have been more like 190 in the same timeframe because we would have had no way of implementing the ideas that we came up with."