Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Focus and Leverage Part 339

Last week I received an email from one of my followers, asking me what my most rewarding experience has been in my career regarding continuous improvement.  I thought about that question and decided to share that experience with everyone.  I have been very fortunate to have had many rewarding experiences during my career and I had to think long and hard about which one was the most rewarding one.

Back in the 1990's I was fortunate enough to have become the General Manager of a manufacturing company that was struggling to stay afloat.  There were roughly 280 people employed at this facility and, for the most part, they were all hard-working employees who wanted to do the right thing, but had never been taught what "right" actually looked like.  At the time, I was hired to come in and actually close the plant, but when I met the employees, I saw the potential that existed.  I asked for 3 months to turn this facility around and given assurances that,  if we were successful in this turn-around, that the plant could stay open. 

Because my back ground was primarily Quality and Engineering, I lacked the operational experience and know-how. This is the point in my career that I discovered the Theory of Constraints.  My friend and mentor had given me a copy of Goldratt's book, The Goal, and it forever changed my view of the world.  Yes, this book was all about a manufacturing company in trouble, just like mine, but there were so many more learnings.  I immediately bought copies of this book for all of my staff and then we "lived" its teachings for the next 3 months.

There are so many stories I could write about during our turn-around effort.....stories of the people who truly made it happen. the people building our products.  All 280 of them focused on becoming a better place....one that is profitable and one that our customers loved.  When I arrived at this facility, our customers were not happy with our performance in terms of on-time delivery and had threatened to take their business elsewhere.  Our suppliers were not happy with us as we seemed to take forever to pay our bills.  Our workforce just missed becoming unionized by 5 votes.  All of these situations were working against us and each were getting worse each day.

I remember having my first plant meeting and the look on people's faces when I told them I had been hired to come in and shut the plant down.  I had been told not to tell the work force about the future plans, but decided then and there that honesty had to be the first step.  I also told the work force that I had been given 3 months to become profitable.  That meeting was just like a high school pep rally and by the time it was over, there were so many volunteers to help with our turn-around that I actually had to turn some away.

We had daily meetings about our progress and the number of improvement ideas was overwhelming.  Back then, very little was known about the Theory of Constraints, but that didn't stop us.  We hadn't received any special training on how to use it, so we had to learn on the fly by reading Goldratt's book.  Every day we would start the day with what we called, our "Herbie Hunt."  For those of you not familiar with Herbie, he was one of the boy scouts and had been identified as the constraint during a boy scout hike.  The hikers concluded that if they wanted to hike faster, they had to help Herbie go faster.  Every day we would identify where in the process our products were getting delayed and we would fix it on the spot.

The good news is, the plant became profitable in about 2 1/2 months and remained open.  In fact, our plant became the model for the entire company with regular visits from other GM's within the organization.  So in answer to the email question I received, it was easy for me to choose my most rewarding experience.....our plant turn-around!

The most important lesson I learned from this experience is that most of the solutions to the problems we faced came from the work force.....the shop floor workers.....the true subject matter experts!  I didn't understand the power of this lesson until I lived it, but since then, I have used it in every improvement effort since then.  I can honestly say that, before this improvement effort, I truly didn't understand the concept of involvement.  Involvement is not having token shop floor workers as members of a team.  Involvement was having the true subject matter experts "lead" the improvement effort.  I had decided back then that whatever solutions the SME's brought forward, we would implement them as presented as long as they did not violate safety practices, contractual obligations or company policies.  I also learned that not all members of the management team can let go of their command and control mentality, but they must, if the turn-around was going to succeed.  Yes, I can say with all assurances that this experience was my most rewarding one ever!

Bob Sproull

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