How to Avoid One of the Biggest Mistakes Plant Leadership Makes

Jan. 9, 2018
Are you in danger of signing up for more than you can resource? Here's expert advice on how to prevent "death by a thousand initiatives."

Question for Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership: In one of your early columns, you wrote: “This is one of the biggest mistakes that plant leadership makes—they sign up for more than they can resource and end up over-promising and under-delivering—ultimately dying from “a thousand initiatives.” Do you have any thoughts on how to avoid this scenario?”

Answer: The first plant manager I reported to back in the mid-1970s, a mentor named Roland Miracle, liked to remind his staff about focusing on the significant few by saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” That quote has stuck with me throughout my career and I have used it many times over.

Everyone who works requires direction from the top. Everyone wants to “be in the know” about how the company is doing and what the expectations are for the future. Are we winning or losing? Where are we going as a company? What are the main areas of focus? What are the handful of things we must do well to be successful long term? How do I apply this consistent message in my area of the business? How should I consistently and relentlessly communicate so my team is always clear about the most important work they should stay focused on? How do I “dipstick” those who are a skip-level down to make sure the direction is getting through? How do I make sure I’m setting the right example? As the plant manager, how do I make sure the organization executes the budget plan for the year?

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I urge you to think about these questions carefully and assess how well you are doing to be true to this focused agenda -- and what about your subordinates and your boss? Some serious discussions are absolutely necessary if the direction is not crystal clear both up and down the organization. A one-on-one discussion with the boss would be a good place to start to make sure you are aligned on the expectations to make the new year’s plan.

The most classic example of failure on this question of alignment is the mind-numbing, annual budget cycle.  Be sure your manager understands that you have planned and dedicated resources to accomplish what you signed up for, but make this key point to the boss: “If your expectations change during the course of the year, we’ll need to renegotiate these commitments for which I am accountable. Also, I must be able to count on your steadfast support to stay the course on our agreed-upon agenda and not allow others to expect use of my scarce resources to work on other things.”

What kind of a response you get will be very telling. You’re saying, in effect: “You’re holding me accountable to deliver these results so I need you to have my back when managers in other areas ask me to work on things that are a distraction from my No. 1 objective for the year.” Unless you direct me otherwise, my response to them will simply be: “Sorry, but the people you’re asking to help you are already committed to delivering our productivity plan for the year. No way I can pull them off what they’re doing unless the plant manager changes my No. 1 priority.”

Follow that up with a meeting with your direct reports seeking the same understanding and alignment, which they will then carry on down through the organization to the very last person. While walking through a factory, I always like to chat with supervisors, operators, material handlers, value stream/department managers, to see how well they understand the direction and if their thinking is aligned.

Often Best Problem-Solvers and Worst Offenders

I also like to confirm that those who are instrumental to ensuring the factory “makes the numbers” for the year stay focused on the initiatives that will cause that to happen. This group is typically made up of engineers, supervisors, technicians, project managers, maintenance people assigned to capital investments, machine rebuilds, etc. These are often our best problem solvers, our best people. They also may be the worst offenders in putting the plan numbers in jeopardy.

Their phone rings. There’s a problem on a machine that they once installed and that they know very well. They’re clearly the best person for the job. What is their instinct? They abandon their project that will take months to deliver, grab a fire hose and go running to the machine to help. Well-intentioned, to be sure, but that’s not their job right now. Someone else must have this assignment. (This is the wrong time to find out that there has been no backup person trained to deal with issues on that machine.)

These are the kinds of things that end up robbing hours from the scarce resource and putting the overall plan for the year at risk. And it’s totally self-imposed. These scarce resources must be disciplined enough, held accountable enough, that they stay focused on the most important things. Someone else’s problems need to be resolved by someone else.

Location, Location, Location

Plants are sometimes located on the same or nearby property of a division or group headquarters. In my experience, this elevates the risk about tenfold that the plant manager will get more help than she wants with other, more senior executives calling in to expedite pet projects or asking for “just a couple of days” to be spent on something they need but failed to include in the plan. In these situations, you need to confidently refer them to your boss for any discussion whatsoever on that topic. Yes, you risk being labeled “non-cooperative.” This kind of allegation is, of course, false and unfair -- and another example of why your boss must have your back.

Here’s a start on some standard work for the plant manager:

  1. Require your engineering project managers to conduct a detailed review of the project plans including the deliverables, the schedule, risks and opportunities to the plant manager’s staff and the entire engineering staff. This is where you clarify expectations, the rules of engagement and accountability.
  2. Every monthly plant manager’s staff meeting will include a status review of all active projects and any that will start within the next 60 days (this is to verify that any necessary materials, data, planned resources, etc., will be available on time for the project’s start). Any active projects that are not on the path to meet budget will require a “workout plan” to be prepared and presented to the plant manager within one week. (A good engineering manager will have already started this process!) Tracking will commence immediately based on the workout plan until the project is back on the path to on-time completion of the deliverables. Failing that, a supplemental project is expected to be identified to close the forecasted gap.
  3. Any project that is not tracking to meet the commitments for two consecutive months will result in the project manager receiving an invite to make a presentation of the corrective action plan in the plant manager’s office or conference room. This is intended to ensure that the project manager still has a path to make the year’s numbers and is getting the resources that were committed for this project. At the appropriate time the plant manager should ask, “What help do you need that you aren’t now getting?” This is a good way to keep everyone focused on the target, i.e.,  executing the project savings that have been committed and for which everyone in the room is accountable. It also is a visible indication that the plant manager is absolutely locked in on making the numbers without excuses.
  4. Set up a self-policing check for the plant manager and direct reports. This is simply a reminder to be sure none of this group is creating problems themselves by diverting scarce resources onto other things. It’s a box that must be checked each day on the daily standard worksheet. This helps to keeps the topic of “focus on the most important things” foremost in their minds.
  5. Always have a “lessons learned” review after each project is concluded. What worked great that we want to duplicate on other projects? What did we learn from this project that we can improve and upgrade the standard work for both ongoing and future projects?

“Time waste differs from material waste in that there can be no salvage. The easiest of all wastes and the hardest to correct is the waste of time, because wasted time does not litter the floor like wasted material.” -- Henry Ford

“Accountability is the glue that bonds commitment to results.” -- Will Craig

“The plant manager is accountable for what happens or fails to happen 24/7/365.” -- Larry E. Fast

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Lean Leader's
Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd. Edition.

About the Author

Larry Fast | Founder & President

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of "The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence," which was released in 2011 by CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, as a Productivity Press book. It was a best seller in its category and a 2nd. Edition was published Sept. 24, 2015. It features a new Chapter 1 on leadership, various updates of anecdotes, and new electronic tools on the accompanying CD. At Belden, where he spent his first 25 years, Fast conceived and implemented a strategy for manufacturing excellence that substantially improved manufacturing quality, service and cost. He is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997 to co-lead North American Operations. Fast later was named senior VP of North American Operations and a member of the corporate leadership team. By 2001 the first General Cable plant had won Top 25 recognition as one of the IndustryWeek Best Plants. By 2008, General Cable manufacturing plants had been recognized for 19 awards. Fast holds a bachelor of science degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business in 1986.

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