It was 11 p.m. one Friday. I was 25 years old, just out of university, running an onsite logistics service at Ford Motor Company. One of my main responsibilities as a supervisor was to ensure all parts arrived on time and that the lines were not at risk of shutting down because they were late.
On this fateful evening, the manufacturer who was producing the seats for the cars got behind and we had some confusion among our own truck drivers. We were within minutes of the line shutting down. As I stood anxiously waiting for the seats, the night superintendent took notice. Hardened by 30 years of experience, he was not a guy you wanted to mess with! He proceeded to give it to me while the line waited for the seats to plod down the conveyor, ever so slowly.
I have no idea what he was yelling at me, not a clue, even then. What I can remember from that night is his foot going up and down while he was talking at me, stomping on the concrete floor as each word seemed to get louder and louder.
I will never forget how deflated and defeated I felt.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Many organizations are still run with an iron fist, getting results through tension and fear. If profits are your main measurement, this approach may work, but then I tend to debate what “working” really means. The sustaining part is another story. When you are running a company and using fear as a motivator, turnover is destined to be higher, and I have seen the rotation of senior leadership as a solution. This is not a way to go from good to great.
I can still feel the stress of that night as I write this, but I’m grateful to have had that experience early in my career. This was the beginning of a personal curiosity about this industry that lead to an accumulation of events, disappointments, setbacks, mistakes, and eventual successes that led me to focus on developing a three-part blueprint to guide manufacturing leaders in better communication with their workers. My Manufacturing Leadership Model focuses on the leader, their actions and the systems and structures of the organization. While every plant has its own culture and, in some cases, its own type of chaos, this model is a problem-solving tool that can apply to leadership in any plant.
Owner/CEOs/general managers wake up in the morning with good intentions. They want results and to make things better. But when they show up, they appear to their team differently than they intended. In worst-case scenarios, they rule with an iron fist because they think they got their role because of their abrasive behavior—when in fact they often get where they are in spite of that behavior.
The highest level of the organization turns the main gear on the model shown here, and that affects the rest of the organization. If that gear blows out, the rest of the model shuts down.
The difference between how you think, what you do and how you are perceived is what I call the “showing up gap.” Be aware of how you present yourself to others, and things are less likely to blow up in your face.
At a small offsite with four senior leaders of a large manufacturing plant, one of the managers was discussing his passion about quality and his frustration with the dismal customer scorecard. When I asked about all the non-conforming product on the floor with red tags that we reviewed the day before, he quickly began to explain.
“Trevor you need to understand,” he said, “when we are tight to the customer, we sometimes have to run with burrs, and fix them later. There is not time to fix the root cause. And yes, on occasion, we verbally okay some parts out of spec if we know it will not impact the customer.’
What! Do you see the showing-up gap? This was a smart guy, who was inspired and thinking about quality. But his actions—telling his people to approve flawed product--created a huge gap in how he was showing up. When the highest level of the organization acts in a way to drive confusion and chaos and does not see the impact, it can destroy a company.
Structures and Systems
If you were in the situation where you had to duplicate your plant, but you could not take any people with you, what would you do? What could you take with you?
This is where structure and systems come in. Proper structure ensures responsibilities are clear. If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible. I have helped some plants simply by getting into the details of their organizational chart.
When helping a Quality Manager recently run a workshop with a cross-functional team, we uncovered some interesting perceptions. The subject revolved around changeovers on presses, and we got stuck on the concern of whom the die setters reported to. One would think this would be obvious, however due to some role and people changes in the company, it became clear it was not clear. At the end of the workshop, the ownership came in to get feedback from the event and expressed surprise that the die-setters didn’t know who to report to. But the reality was, no matter how clear they thought they were, the cross-functional group in this workshop were not aligned.
Good people without clear expectations will make the best choice in their mind. If you don’t know what the priority is, you’re going to work on what you think is the right thing to do. If they lack expectations on an organizational chart, people will simply do what they think is best.
This simple piece of ambiguity drove waste and confusion, along with accountability concerns. The action was to post the organizational chart and review it with the team. Voila! A no-cost solution provided an immediate improvement, as the structure of the organization was now transparent. It is these small simple factors that drive this model and success.
Structure drives behavior which drives results.
Systems keep things running with cadence, regardless of who gets replaced. This could be audits, quality systems, or even consistent shift pass-off meetings. It might be a way simply to organize your manpower. Whatever it is, if the system works and it becomes part of the culture, your “gears” are stronger, more reliable, and provide stability in times of chaos.
What does your manufacturing leadership model look like? Step back and assess. There may be some simple ways to boost your results, with little investment.
Trevor Blondeel is an operations expert with more than 25 years of leadership experience in automotive manufacturing. He spent most of his career at Magna International. He now coaches manufacturing owners and leaders on how to build their skills and ultimately improve themselves and their organizations.