Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Focus and Leverage Part 170

One of the pleasures of being a part of a turn-around is seeing the transformation of the systems, people, product and customer.  On this last point, the customer, I want to relate an event that took place about five months after we began our transformation.  This event was a visit we had from one of the purchasing executives from BMW in Germany.  Since we had improved so rapidly, he decided to pay us a visit to see first-hand just what we had done to improve our quality and delivery.

I mentioned in my last posting that there were 48 measurement points to determine how well the hard top mounted to the vehicle.  We greeted the executive team that had accompanied the purchasing executive, exchanging pleasantries and getting to know each other until he announced that he was going to our manufacturing area and that he would randomly select a completed hard top and have it mounted on their Z3.  He further stated that his quality manager would inspect all 48 control points for conformance to specs.  The quality manager took his time, inspected each point and concluded that all points met BMW’s specs.  The purchasing executive’s eyebrows rose in disbelief and with a very heavy German accent said, “Mr. Sproull, the measurements are only part of what we expect.”  He then said, “Mr. Sproull, you will drive me on the Interstate at a high rate of speed and I will listen for air entering into the vehicle.”

He and I drove to the Interstate and he instructed me to accelerate until he told me to stop, which I did.  His ear was pressed close to the hardtop mounting area as he listened for the slightest sound of air passing under the hardtop.  At 65 mph there was no sound, so he instructed me to accelerate again up to 75mph, but still no air entering the vehicle.  He had a very disappointed look on his face so, on my own, I continued to accelerate to 90 mph, then 100 mph and finally to 105 mph.  He looked at me with a fearful look on his face and instructed me to return to our facility.  We had passed his functionality test with flying colors!!

When we returned, he explained that he wanted to mount a black hardtop on his vehicle so that he could compare our paint job to his.  Painting at our facility was something we now took pride in, but not so in the beginning.  When I had arrived at the Kentucky plant I saw first-hand just how bad our paint jobs were.  We had a very old paint booth which was apparently full of dust particles that ended up on the surface of our vehicles.  I put together a team of maintenance mechanics and explained that we needed to figure out a way to keep our paint booth free of particles and that I needed some good ideas.  To make a long story short, one of the maintenance mechanics had a side business for lawn sprinklers.  He had this bright idea that if we mounted such a system in the paint booth, we could actually clean the air between paintings by emitting a fine mist of water.  We tried it and it worked like a champ!

Back to our story.  The purchasing executive randomly selected a completed black top and we mounted it on his vehicle.  We parked it in a highly lighted area and he scrutinized it for a good 30 minutes.  When he was finished, he summoned me to the vehicle, looked me in the eye and said, “Mr. Sproull, we have a serious problem!”  I asked him what the problem was and he told me that our paint job did not match the paint job on his vehicle.  I was shocked because I knew our painting was the best in the industry.  When I asked him what was wrong with our hardtop’s paint job, he sneered at me and said absolutely nothing!  The problem was with his own vehicle.  There was an enormous amount of orange peel on his vehicle’s surface.  My response to him was, “Would you like us to add orange peel to our hardtop’s surface?”  He looked at me and simply said, “I don’t find any humor in that remark!”

Yes, this day was one of our great days for our plant.  All of the hard work and dedication of our employees had paid off as the purchasing executive from Germany told us that he wished all of his suppliers were as good as we were.  I asked him to speak to my employees and let them know his feelings which he did.  That day was clearly a turning point for our plant both in our reputation and the morale of our workforce.  They had pride for the first time in years and I’ve always believed that “people who feel good about themselves….produce great results.” 

Just for the record, the first month that I took over this failing facility we lost about $600,000, but within two and a half months we were making roughly $500,000 per month.  It was such a joy to see this wonderful team of people doing to well…..I was so proud of every single employee for it was them that made it all happen!!  One of the things the management team learned and something I insisted upon that all improvement ideas would be considered on their merit as long as they didn’t violate company rules, safety policies or customer requirements.  I can honestly say that 95% of all of the solutions came directly from the shop floor workers…..the true subject matter experts.  Since that fateful turn-around, I have successfully used this basic idea….what I call active listening.  It worked for me then as a GM and it continues to work for me as a consultant.

The saga will continue in my next posting as I will continue to share both good and not so good experiences.

Bob Sproull


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