Behind the Improvements to NIBCO’s Internal Processes

Why the general counsel of NIBCO is making legal go paperless

NIBCO is more than 110 years old, and parts of the Elkhart, Indiana-based company are steeped in tradition.

When Joe Perkins joined the company, he took over a legal department that hadn’t embraced the technology the rest of the company used to improve processes and functionality. “When I arrived, I observed a legal team that was paper driven—paper files, paper invoices, a functioning legal library with books—and they still had paper legal files,” Perkins says.

The department reminded Perkins of his first practice—twenty-seven years ago. “I am sure the previous legal team was comfortable, but from day one, I thought there were ways to function more efficiently and really catch up with the rest of the company.  That transition has only begun, but Perkins says the department is steadily changing.

“By not having to focus so much on paper, we can focus on legal strategy and how to become more efficient.”

NIBCO’s long history was also revealed in the legal team’s response to Perkins’s appointment as general counsel. His predecessor held the position for thirty-one years, and the rest of the lawyers on staff left the company before Perkins started. That could have been demoralizing; instead, it gave Perkins an opportunity to restaff the department by building a team from scratch.

“I had the ability to go out and recruit, and bring in some really strong talent,” says Perkins. “We had a clean slate, so we’ve been able to think through the processes we want to implement and define how we want to achieve excellence.”

He says the idea that “this is how we’ve always done it” has never been part of the new legal team’s dialogue. “We are always talking about how we can become more efficient.” Legal believes attorneys should move at the speed of business, and they focus on delivering high-quality service.

Perkins says the company, as a whole, has been an early adopter of technology, but he wanted the legal team to be on the front end of any software changes the company makes.

He volunteered to be the executive sponsor of a new group formed to implement new software. “The legal team will be able to go paperless, and by not having to focus so much on paper, we can focus on legal strategy and how to become more efficient,” he says.

Perkins sees his role as prioritizing process improvement and managing the resources to make this happen. Though the company’s legal team is small, Perkins is committed to making sure its processes are lean and efficient.

He describes his leadership style as a mix between visionary and collaborative. “One of the things I have really enjoyed about being a general counsel is that I get to set the vision for how our legal team will evolve and grow,” he says. “I have set that vision, and I have asked each team member to join me on this journey to transform this team.” He says that is the same approach NIBCO Chairman and CEO Rex Martin takes—he is a very strong visionary leader, and Perkins is modeling that approach.

Looking to the future, Perkins plans to continue to coach, lead, and develop the legal team he has put together, and he wants to make sure the team embodies one of the company’s core values, which is continuous improvement.

“And if I want to set an ambitious goal, I want us to get to the point where we are an example for other small legal teams,” says Perkins. “My goal is that they will one day benchmark us and say we have a small team and are handling a large amount of work—and doing it efficiently and effectively.”

5 keys to cross-functional leadership

1. Make sure the team has a clear goal. Develop a plan with deadlines, and make sure every team member is committed.

2. Establish roles and responsibilities among the cross-functional team. Manage different approaches by being specific when you define each role.

3. Each discipline should be working with key stakeholders in their area. Know who they are in each part of the company represented on the team.

4. Ensure the team is using a common set of tools. Methodologies such as Sigma Six or Lean provide a common set of tools and give the team a standard way of gathering data, communicating, and measuring results.

5. Recognize incremental successes along the way.