Mary Miller HR manager Delphi North America

Leadership & Strategy: Servant Leadership in a Crisis

Jan. 14, 2014
"It takes a leap of faith from the old management style," said Tom Green, former plant manager of the Delphi Automotive Brake Assembly plant in Dayton, Ohio.

Tensions had been high for months, ever since Delphi North America declared bankruptcy.

The future of the Delphi Automotive Brake Assembly plant in Dayton, Ohio, was uncertain.

Until that Friday.

The Dayton plant, with its 1,500 employees, would close by June 2008. Everyone from the plant manager to the salaried employees to the hourly production workers would lose their jobs, their livelihoods.

"People were pretty surprised. Nobody saw it coming," said Mary Miller, the plant's HR manager. "People panicked. Productivity dropped."

The job security, the plan for the future each had envisioned, had vanished. Morale was, as expected, at rock bottom. Yet the plant had to continue to operate at full volume for another two years, despite having a disenfranchised workforce.

It was then that plant manager Tom Green woke up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat. To keep employees engaged, to keep the plant meeting targets, he decided the only route forward was through servant leadership -- putting the people first. He knew that until leadership took care of every individual, those individuals would likely have no reason to take care of the needs of the business.

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

"We just came to the conclusion this was the only way we were going to survive and get through this thing," Green said.

A Leadership Leap of Faith

In this case, that meant reaching out to the salaried workers because management was limited in its dealings with the unionized workforce.

In fact, Delphi offered hourly workers buyouts, a deal 84% of the union workforce accepted. That meant Green had to hire 800 new workers to fill the vacancies without missing a beat on the plant floor.

Green and Miller devised what they called a Plan for Every Person. The plans, which were independent of performance reviews, were created to reflect the goals and needs of each employee.

"Our job was to listen," said Green, who made it a point to have lunch with a different employee every day.

Some workers wanted more diversified experience; others wanted to go back to school; and a number needed help creating resumes.

Miller and Green brought in financial planners; they held a four-hour program, Leading Yourself Through Change, on being resilient in times of change; and they created a jobs website,, on which employees could post resumes.

And, in the end, it worked.

The plant didn't have any lost-time accidents during the last 1 million hours worked; it had single-digit parts per million defects; a 99.5% on-time delivery rate; and it reduced costs by $160 million in two years, while still surpassing 6-month profit targets by 200%.

"It's not an easy thing to swallow given the management style we've had in industry the past 50 years," Green said. "It takes a leap of faith from the old management style."

But, in his case, being a servant leader, putting people first and helping them grow enabled the fated plant to succeed despite all odds.

About the Author

Ginger Christ | Ginger Christ, Associate Editor

Focus: Workplace safety, health & sustainability.

Call: 216-931-9750

Connect: Google+ LinkedIn | Twitter

Ginger Christ is an associate editor for EHS Today, a Penton publication.

She has covered business news for the past seven years, working at daily and weekly newspapers and magazines in Ohio, including the Dayton Business Journal and Crain's Cleveland Business.

Most recently, she covered transportation and leadership for IndustryWeek, a sister publication to EHS Today.

She holds a bachelor of arts in English and in Film Studies from the University of Pittsburgh.



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