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What Would You Risk to Make Improvement Happen?

To change a culture, it is important to have a well-thought-out plan that is communicated and implemented with the buy-in of all employees and to have a change leader willing to push the envelope to make improvement happen. Editor's Note: John Dyer will present a workshop Show Me the Money! How to get Lean/Six Sigma Buy-In From Upper Management on May 3 at the IndustryWeek Manufacturing & Technology Conference & Expo.

Improvement requires something to change. How far would you be willing to push the need for change (even positive change that will improve the process)? How close to the proverbial line would you be willing to go to make improvement happen? Are you willing to risk your bonus or future pay increases? How about jeopardizing future promotions? Would you risk getting fired?

Of course, it does not help if the change champions are constantly in fear of getting fired. So, it is important to know how to push the envelope without crossing the line. But where is that line in your company? Oh, and guess what, that line may have nothing to do with your boss or the company leaders as demonstrated by the following example (based on an actual event).

Sally got the phone call every wife dreads. “Your husband has been in an accident at work and you need to get here as soon as you can,” the nurse said in as pleasant a voice as possible. She immediately jumped into her car and sped to the hospital. “Please, please, please let my Jimmy be OK,” she prayed. She walked into Jimmy’s hospital room and was stunned to see that most of his head was wrapped in gauze with all sorts of tubes and wires connected to help keep him alive.

Two months earlier:

“Do you have everything?” Sally said to her husband as he was preparing to head off to work.

“Yeah, I think so. I still can’t believe I was able to get this job. I hate that it is on the second shift, but being a maintenance technician for a major company will really set us up for the future,” said Jimmy as he was putting on his coat.

“Hey, it will be great having you home during the day. We can work around your schedule and in a couple of years, when you finish getting your degree, then maybe you can move into a supervisor role.”

Jimmy drove to the plant with butterflies in his stomach. “I hope I will fit in,” he thought. “And I hope I can keep up with all of the demands.” He shook his head and thought, “No. I got this. My previous experiences have set me up for success. And who knows, maybe I can make a difference and get noticed by helping to drive some improvements as well as keep the lines running.”

Jimmy realized after a few days in his new role that it was going to take a while to fit into the culture. “No one wants to change anything,” he said to Sally one morning after a particularly tough shift at work. “There are so many opportunities for improving things but no one seems to want to upset the apple cart.”

“Give it some time,” Sally responded. “Once you show everyone what you are capable of and win some respect, then you can start offering up your ideas.”

“Hey Jimmy! Come over here!” said the maintenance supervisor a few weeks later. “One of the production lines needs to be changed over to the model we plan to run tomorrow and all of the regular maintenance guys are out sick. It takes eight hours to change over the line so we have to do it on third shift when production isn’t running. I need you to stay after your shift and help get this done. We will pay you time and a half for the first four hours and then double time for the rest of the night.”

“Sounds good. My wife and I are planning to start a family soon, so the extra money will come in handy,” responded Jimmy.

“I know you don’t have any experience in changing over this line. I will ask one of the manufacturing engineers to come in at midnight and give you some guidance,” said his boss.

Doug the engineer for this production line hated coming in late to help the second-shift guys. But he owed the maintenance supervisor a favor and he had heard that the new maintenance technician he would be working with had a good head on his shoulders. “Keep an eye on this one,” the maintenance supervisor shared with Doug. “I think with a little guidance and mentoring, he has the potential to really go places.”

“Are you Jimmy?” Doug said as he walked up to the production line that required the changeover.

“Yeah, and you must be my ‘guidance,’” replied Jimmy with a smile as he extended his hand in greeting. “I have been looking over this equipment and can’t understand why it takes eight hours to change over to the next model.”

“Hmmm… you think it can be done faster?” asked Doug. “This production line has been a thorn in my side for several years. If we could get the changeover times down, then we might be able to start changing models midshift, which would give us a tremendous amount of flexibility. But I have been told that eight hours is the fastest this line can be changed.”

“Naw. I bet I can get it done in less than two hours,” said Jimmy.

“That would be great… then I can head home and maybe get some sleep before I have to be here in the morning,” said Doug with a yawn.

Doug headed up to his office and decided to check on Jimmy’s progress after a couple of hours had gone by. He fully expected to see the young maintenance technician way behind schedule and frustrated with the changeover process. He was shocked to see Jimmy closing up his tool box.

“It is ready to go,” said Jimmy with a grin. “And here is a list of notes on ways to cut the times even further. I bet we could get it down to less than 30 minutes with these improvements.”

“Wow!” said Doug. “This is great work. Thirty minutes would give us a huge advantage. I had heard a rumor that management was thinking of moving this production line to another plant to try and cut costs. Maybe, they will reconsider with these improvements. This is really good work.”

Jimmy headed home with a smile on his face. “Sally!” he shouted with excitement as he walked into their home. “This evening was fantastic,” he said as he swept his wife into his arms. “I think I really made a difference tonight at work. Maybe, this will put me on a career path we have been hoping for.”

The next afternoon, Jimmy drove to work in a mood bordering on excitement. “I can’t wait to see Doug to discuss other ways I might be able to help.”

“Hey Jimmy… get your tail over here!” said one of the maintenance technicians he worked with. “Did I hear this right? Did you change one of the production lines over in less than two hours last night?”

“Yeah,” said Jimmy. “And I think with a little focus, we can get it down to 30 minutes or less.”

“Well, watch your back kid. A lot of guys make a ton of money changing that line on overtime each night. They stand to lose a lot of income because of your ‘improvement’ ideas.”

Jimmy didn’t give this warning much thought. “I am sure they all understand that the only way we can keep jobs is to do things better than the competition,” he thought.

Later that evening, Jimmy was driving an electric scooter down one of the aisle ways when, all of a sudden, somewhere high up in the rafters of the plant building, a large bucket of used hydraulic oil was purposefully dumped. It splattered all over Jimmy, getting into his eyes, nose and mouth. He was immediately rushed to the hospital.

Jimmy was fortunate not to suffer any permanent damage. He stayed in the hospital for several days and came back to work a few weeks later. He passed Doug in the hallway after his return.

“Hey Jimmy. Good to see you back. Do you want to discuss some of those ideas for improvement you gave me the other night?”

“Naw. I am too busy and will be from now on. So, just leave me alone,” he said as he walked away shaking his head in dejection.

Doug watched Jimmy walk away and felt a sense of hopelessness. “I can’t stand what is happening in this plant,” he thought. “But, what can I do to change things? I am just one person, deep in the bowels of the organization. Will anyone listen? Can I make a difference?”

The incident with Jimmy (not his real name) was a significant turning point. The workers realized that if things did not change, they would all be out of a job. People started volunteering to be on improvement teams, the company leaders began to address the toxic culture and slowly, the plant began to improve. Even the maintenance department eventually got on board (when I wrapped up my time with this plant, a group of maintenance technicians gave me a gift to show their appreciation).

5 Suggestions to Boost Your Chance for Success

How can an improvement leader make change happen? Who will have the courage to stand up and say, “Enough! We must change or nothing will ever get better?” If people turn a blind eye, then nothing will improve. Change needs to happen at all levels (worker, supervisor, support and management).

Would it be easier to leave the situation alone and hope things get better or would you be willing to push for improvement even if it meant putting your career into jeopardy? If you decided to go the route of championing change, what can be done to turn things around? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Paint a positive vision of the future. “What’s in it for me?” is a common question that must be addressed. When explaining the lean and Six Sigma tools and methodologies, everyone must be convinced that the purpose is to help people work smarter, not harder, and that the objective is not to get rid of workers (that is cost cutting, not improvement… See “Are you Caught in the Cost Cutting Death Spiral?”) but to help meet and exceed their customers' needs in order to provide job security for the workers and their families. Employees at all levels must also have an opportunity to feel proud of their company and accomplishments. Celebrations need to be well planned every time an improvement milestone is reached.

2. Understand what is driving the resistance to change. Consider what might be creating barriers to change, such as the financial impact that the improvements will have on the employees. If management has been working a group of production workers on overtime for an extended time, then expect some of them to resist improving if they feel that their pay will be cut due to the changes. One example was a plant that had been working everyone 60 hour weeks for over three years. The employees had gotten accustomed to this additional pay, and they had purchased houses and cars based on this level of income. It does not play well to ask a group to change and then expect them to be good with a pay reduction that could cause them to fall on hard economic times. Ways to deal with this may include phasing the overtime out over time and provide opportunities to make up the difference in pay in other ways (For example: job enhancement and promotional opportunities, cross-training and mentoring others, and/or some sort of bonus plan).

3. Build a case for change. An interesting question to ask a group of workers is “What do you value as a customer when buying a product or service?” The answer to that question may be much different today than just a few years ago. We now expect to be able to order almost anything online, get a good value and have it delivered in a couple of days (the Amazon.com effect). So, if your workers expect this, why wouldn’t your customers expect this as well?

I worked with one group of employees who were particularly stubborn to change. They were convinced that the fastest their product could be made and shipped was four weeks. I was challenging them to get the time down to less than a week. “Can’t be done,” several of them told me (the engineers and supervisors as well as the workers). I picked up the phone in the conference room and called one of their competitors. The group was shocked to hear the order taker tell me that they could build and ship the same product in less than four days. The resistance to change immediately evaporated.

4. Show me the money! Upper management must be able to see how the improvement efforts will help them achieve the company’s goals, especially the goals pertaining to revenues and profits. This can be a challenge if the focus is not to eliminate workers (one of the few hard savings accounting allows).

[For those of you who are able to attend the upcoming IndustryWeek Manufacturing and Technology Conference and Expo (May 3 -5, 2016), I will be leading a workshop titled “Show Me the Money! How to get Lean/Six Sigma Buy-In from Upper Management.” We will be learning through the use of discussions and hands-on activities, how to help make the connection between improvements and profits/revenues. I hope to see you there.]

5. Allow the Company Leaders to Own the Improvements. Saying something like, “You idiots who run this company don’t know what you are doing!” will probably get you fired pretty quickly. Instead, work hard to educate your leaders and help them see a different way things could be done. This can be accomplished by sharing information one-on-one with each leader, by encouraging them to sit in on the improvement training (to show their support but in reality, some of the training may be absorbed), and by taking them to other plants to see for themselves how things could be different (check your board of directors to see if any of them are part of a company doing improvements well, and encourage your CEO to visit one of their plants). Once your leaders have seen the light, propose an action plan and then ask for their inputs. The more involved they are with the final plan, the more they will support and own the outcome. Remember, the company leaders are also putting their future career and reputation on the line, so they need to feel comfortable with the direction of the improvements.

Of course, what happened to Jimmy should never be allowed to happen in any business. In order to change the culture, it is important to have a well-thought-out plan that is communicated and implemented with the buy-in of employees at all levels and to have a change leader willing to push the envelope to make improvement happen -- even if that means putting their career at risk.

Once the company executives and workers can see the connection between the improvement initiatives and the ability to meet the customers' needs, grow the business, and surpass the financial targets, they will have the back of the change champions. This will go a long way toward allowing improvement to happen. And, who knows, maybe the resistance to change (and improvement) will begin to evaporate.

John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704)658-0049 and [email protected]. See his LinkedIn Profile. He is on Twitter: @JohnDyerPI.

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