Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Focus and Leverage Part 217

Last week I received an email from someone asking me how I had gotten started with the Theory of Constraints and more specifically an integrated Lean, Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints improvement methodology. I told this person that I wasn’t always an advocate of this trilogy, but about sixteen years ago I had a life-altering experience that changed my entire outlook on continuous improvement.  In the next 4 or 5 postings I want to answer this question and share my experiences with you.

Back in 1994 I was working for a major European-based tire manufacturing company as a Quality Manager reporting directly to the plant’s Production Manager.  This guy was very much “old school” in his thinking about how a manufacturing plant should be run. In fact he was pretty much a control freak of sorts and believed that his way was the only way. And almost as if to remind anyone who entered his office that he was in charge, he had a prominently displayed placard above his desk that read, “He who has the gold makes the rules” and he managed accordingly.
I was a relatively young man then (late forties, well, young compared to now :) ) without a lot of experience in the manufacturing world and thought that his way must be the right way since this plant was doing ok.  I had worked under him for several years until one day he was replaced by a much younger and enthusiastic Naval Academy graduate who managed quite differently.  Unlike the previous Production Manager, this new manager (who was also named Bob) was actually very interested in what others had to say and was truly open to new ideas.  Under his leadership the plant evolved and improved in virtually all areas.  Everything was going quite well in our plant until one day, Bob and the Plant Manager had a major disagreement and Bob left the company to become the President of a small fiberglass manufacturing company making parts for the automobile, trucking and camper industry.

That same year the tire manufacturer I worked for went through a major downsizing and offered its employees a “deal” if they opted to leave the company.  This deal was based upon how many years of service you had under your belt and for me it was an opportunity to move on, providing me full pay and benefits for 13 consecutive months.  Since I had always wanted to venture out on my own as a consultant, this 13 month salary safety net provided the financial security I needed to make this career change.  It wasn’t long after I left the tire manufacturer that my former Naval Academy graduate Production Manager, Bob, heard that I had taken this offer and immediately contacted me.  He wanted me to come to his fiberglass company and consult for him.  I accepted his offer and joined him as his interim Director of Quality and Engineering.

Over the course of the next year, we completely transformed that small company taking it to new heights in terms of profitability and on-time delivery.  In fact we did so well that within the next year a rather large company who specialized primarily in making bed liners for pick-up trucks offered to purchase this small fiberglass company to expand their product line and our board of directors approved the sale.  Bob was offered a great compensation package to stay, but I elected to leave and take a position with the USPS (United States Postal Service) as an Area Quality Manager.  My home base was located in Pittsburgh, PA with frequent trips to headquarters in Washington, D.C.
My Pittsburgh location was one of 10 Areas within the USPS and as I soon found out, our customer satisfaction rating placed us dead last among the 10 Areas nationally.  When I delved into why our satisfaction rating was so low, I discovered that there were two primary causes:  mail being misplaced or mail delivered to the wrong location.  I introduced designed experiments to one of our area’s major distribution center’s to determine why their huge mail sorting machines was misdirecting the mail.  The results of this study explained why this problem existed and when we implemented corrective actions, there was a major improvement on the quality of our mail delivery.  So much so, that we moved from last place to first place nationally in about six months.

One morning as I was sitting at my USPS desk, my phone rang and when I answered it was none other than Bob.  “Hi Bob, this is Bob, he said.  “I’m here at the Pittsburgh Airport and I was wondering if you could come on out and have a beer with me?”  I replied, “Bob, it’s only 10AM!” to which he replied, “It’s noon somewhere.”  Anyway, I went out to the airport just to see him again, but opted out of the beer.  He had specifically flown into Pittsburgh to talk to me about a new opportunity he had.  Apparently he had taken a new position as President of a much larger, mid-western company and wanted me to come to work for him.  The position he wanted me for was at a manufacturing plant based in Western Kentucky and he said he really needed my help.  He was very convincing and because I trusted and admired him, I accepted his offer on the spot.  We never actually discussed what the position was, but I naturally assumed that with my background, it would be in Quality or Engineering or some other related discipline.

When I finally arrived in Kentucky two weeks later, much to my surprise, I found out that my new position was the General Manager of this manufacturing plant.  Because my background lacked any kind of significant experience in operations, I was somewhat astonished that he wanted me to run this plant.  When I asked Bob why  he thought that I was well-suited for this job, he simply replied, “Bob, all I need is your people skills and your quality ethic……and besides, we’re probably going to close this plant soon anyway.”  He really shocked me with his last statement!  We talked throughout the day and just before he left for the airport he handed me a book and said, “All of the answers to the problems at this plant are inside this book.”  The book he gave me was The Goal by Eli Goldratt.  That evening I started reading it and ended up staying up most of the night until I finished it.  Just like one of the main characters in The Goal, Alex Rogo, I had a lot to learn and apparently not much time to learn it.

The plant employed around 260 people and based upon what I learned from talking to the employees, there were many problems.  I learned things like the supplier base was not delivering materials on time apparently because we weren’t paying our bills on time.  Add to that the fact that we didn’t deliver our parts on time and well, you get the picture.  I also discovered that the week before I had arrived, the people working at this plant had voted on whether or not to become unionized and apparently just missed being so by 5 votes.  It was clear to me that the hourly work force was not happy with the management team that had been in place.

The first month I took over was not a good month financially in that we lost roughly $600K and the corporate leadership was ready to shut the plant down. I asked our corporate office to delay any action of this nature until I had an opportunity to at least attempt a turn-around and to my surprise they reluctantly agreed.   I have never felt more like Alex Rogo as I did at this plant, but soon I would realize how much I respected him for what he had done.  Yes, I realize Alex was a fictitious character, but I truly did relate to him and what he accomplished.

One of the first actions I took was to call a meeting of my direct reports just to get to know them and to find out their take on the business.  I must say that this first meeting was a memorable one, not just for me, but for them as well.  When they all were seated, I welcomed them, introduced myself, and asked them to pass me their office keys.  I still remember the look of anxiety on their faces as they all naturally assumed that I had called them all together to dismiss them.  The silence was deafening until finally the HR Manager turned toward me and asked, “Sir, are you firing us?”  I looked back at him and said emphatically, “Hell no I’m not firing you, I need all of you!  I don’t know crap about operations!”  He replied, “Well, uh, why do you want our office keys?”  I simply turned the question around by asked him, “Why do you need them?” He replied, “Uh….to get in our offices.”  I stood up, looked at all of them and said, “You don’t get it!  I don’t want you in your offices…..I want you out on the floor understanding our problems and listening to our workforce!”  The HR Manager said something that I’ll never forget…..”Even me?””  I looked him square in the eyes and said, “Where do you think the human resources are?”  “They’re out on the shop floor and apparently they’re not a happy group!”  I told them that the people doing the work have all of the answers we need if we would just take the time to listen to them.  And with that, I passed out copies of The Goal and told them that they had three days to read it and that there would be a test to make sure they had.  They got my message right away!
To be continued..........
Bob Sproull

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