I frequently tell my business school students and my clients that the success of any change in the organization will depend on the culture that already exists. I think that many of them imagine that I’m talking about “human resources” types of changes, like new training for supervisors or a new compensation plan. I’ve found that it takes some effort to drive home the idea that I’m talking about any change to anything in the organization. Some of the most important changes that take place in a manufacturing organization are additions or changes to operating lines, installation of new machinery and equipment, or implementation of new technologies; e.g., robotics. My point is that these changes, too, will succeed or fail as a function of the existing culture.
A few years ago, I worked with a plant that machined truck wheels from forgings. While I was there helping develop work standards for machine operators, the plant purchased and installed several new, more advanced machining centers.
The new machines were upgrades over what existed in the plant but weren’t otherwise unfamiliar. The products that were to go on the new machines weren’t new. All in all, this was to be as straightforward a capital expansion project as one might imagine.
On the other hand, the culture of the plant was abysmal. Communications, problem-solving, teamwork and collaboration, decision-making and planning happened in a way that served to demotivate managers and employees, when they happened at all. (At one point, I held a meeting to review the progress of the project I’d been hired to carry out. In the meeting was the VP of operations, the plant manager, and several other relevant managers. I couldn’t get any of them to say a word. That spoke to the paucity of effective leadership in the organization.)
The project was a disaster from start to finish. Over-budget, past schedule … and nothing worked the way it was supposed to. One morning, a 100-pound truck wheel shot out of one of the machines, and buried itself in concrete wall 15 yards away. Happily, no one was hurt.
The organization didn’t lack for technical capability and knowledge. It did, however, lack a culture that supported what should have been a fairly straightforward change.
Too often, manufacturers see these sorts of expansions to capacity as dependent only on the application of engineering skill and talent. Just as often, manufacturers learn that cultural shortcomings can result in failure.
What’s an enlightened management team, interested in maximizing its chances for a successful addition to capacity, to do? The answer is that it will need to focus on communications, decision-making, and teamwork.
When change is afoot, the key is to overcommunicate. Tell everyone in the plant what’s coming, what the schedule is, what they can and can’t expect to see along the way. Don’t just tell everyone, “We’ll be putting in a new line,” and leave it at that. Use a variety of channels to let everyone know what’s going on and how the project is progressing. Talk about the project in small face-to-face department and shift meetings. Assure that managers and supervisors, even those who aren’t directly involved with the project, get a good bit of information about it.
Much of the reason for “overcommunication” is to assure that everyone understands the change, why it’s occurring, and how it’s being rolled out. Just as important, though, is the fact that, when managers are communicating to others, they’re putting themselves in a position to hear from others. The more often they are in front of others talking about the change taking place, the more likely they’ll hear feedback and get input on the manner in which the changes are being planned and executed.
My first job was with a coal company in eastern Kentucky. On occasion, a mine would be shut down for several weeks, generally due to high coal inventories at the electric companies. When the mine started back up, everyone would be called back to work and production would start up again.
Just prior to one of these startups, a colleague and I convinced the mine superintendent to hold meetings with each of the mining crews simply to communicate to the workers his plans for re-opening the mine. (Such meetings had never been conducted. In fact, the superintendent was reluctant to hold any meetings until we let him know that we had run the idea past the division president, who expressed his support.) The meetings were held; during some of them, a few questions were asked and a couple of suggestions offered by the miners in attendance. Upon the re-opening, that mine realized the fastest ramp-up to previous production levels the company had ever experienced.
There is, practically speaking, virtually no such thing as “too much information” about important changes.
When planning for new capital and equipment, involve everyone you can. Years ago, I visited a client plant that had recently purchased and installed some new equipment. The plant was having some difficulty getting the new equipment running at the anticipated capacity. I asked the plant manager if operators or maintenance techs had been involved with any part of the purchase, acquisition, or installation of the new equipment. His answer was “no”.
If you’re not including the people who will be operating and maintaining new equipment in the planning for acquiring and implementing that equipment, you are increasing the chances of a failed implementation. Even the best engineers can’t anticipate all the variables that will need to be considered as new capital is brought online.
Managers are sometimes reluctant to involve too many people in planning, believing that it slows that planning. That may be true. But more effective planning pays off in better execution.
The maintenance engineers at a tertiary care hospital I worked at some 30 years ago complained to me about the fact that they weren’t generally included when contractors were hired to plan and install new facilities or changes to existing ones. They reported losing hours, even days, looking for plumbing and gas valves that the contractors had placed within walls or in other inaccessible places. These planning faults ended up increasing costs and compromising patient care. Simply including the hospital’s maintenance engineers in the planning phases could have prevented these losses.
During the year before the pandemic broke out, I’d been working with a client to implement lean management methods and concepts. Much of that work involved pulling teams together to map processes and identify improvements. When the pandemic occurred, the client was designated as an essential business, so it was to continue production and shipping at (or near) pre-COVID levels. This meant an increase in the number of management planning meetings, which had already been something of a burden to them. Resource constraints put additional pressures on management’s ability to work together as a team.
A few weeks after the start of the pandemic, I talked with one of the managers who was central to the lean efforts. He told me that the work in teams the managers had engaged in as part of the lean initiative paid off in their efforts to respond to the demands of the COVID crisis. In other words, the managers had been able to work together effectively in responding to the pandemic because they had established a climate of collaboration while working together on process improvements during the lean initiative.
True teamwork doesn’t come easily to many organizations. Managers are to accustomed to protecting their own turf and optimizing their own access to resources and attending to their own results.
If that’s the case in your own organization, there are some things you can do to promote effective teamwork. First, diversify team membership, not just with respect to different departments but also to different levels in the hierarchy and different expertise. Second, appoint (or hire, if need be) someone to facilitate the team. Both actions serve to increase the team’s creativity and its ability to think “outside the box.” These may sound like extraordinary steps, but they’re far less troublesome and less expensive than replacing a $200,000 machine center that just shot a truck wheel across your shop floor.
Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.