Can Union Facilities Support a Lean, Continuous Improvement Culture?

Dec. 19, 2014
Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership:  Have a question about lean leadership? Let Larry Fast tackle it for you.

QUESTION: Am I just spinning my wheels trying to implement a continuous improvement culture in a union facility? And if your answer is no, where do I begin?

ANSWER: The short answer is that you absolutely are not spinning your wheels, though my experience is that it can be a lot harder if the local union reps are uncooperative. More on that later.

So where do we begin? The same place we would regardless of whether we have union or non-union plants. In my experience I always had some non-union, some union -- though General Cable had a far larger union presence than did Belden.

First, the company’s senior leadership team should initiate the strategy and prepare the template for broad communications of the strategy and the forever commitment it takes.

Let me say that another way: It is a career-long commitment for all current and future employees, not a flavor-of-the-month that’s now in vogue but will change with the next new idea. (This is the first step of the process that far too often is a hurdle the senior leadership team isn’t committed enough to jump. This, of course, is the principal reason why most so-called “initiatives” fail.)

Once the corporate strategy is agreed to by the senior leaders and the board of directors, then the senior leaders go into execution mode.

Almost always in a manufacturing company the initial priority is to start on the shop floor. Why? Because manufacturing operations have most of the people and spend most of the money! And, the shop floor is where the most low-hanging fruit is and, typically, where enormous improvement opportunities are found.

First a senior leader, ideally the CEO, distributes an official communication on the CI journey, the senior leaders and board approval and the commitment that’s been made. I recommend this take the form of an electronic audio/visual communication. The CEO can then make it clear that the overall strategy is for an enterprisewide drive for excellence that includes all functions and all locations. And that manufacturing is where we’ll start and pull other functions in at the appropriate time.

If the factories aren’t noticeably moving the needle on performance improvements in the first two years, senior leaders will either lose interest or start replacing people.

In the meantime, all functions are expected to provide the necessary response that manufacturing requires to resolve issues in the shops in the context that it is in support of the company’s No. 1 priority.

There are, of course, more modern ways for the CEO to do this initial communication, but back in the '90s, and because we had such a broad geography of locations to receive the message, recording a video of the CEO and the CI message was our best approach. That way the CEO could address all employees in a personal way, anywhere in the world, and get the common message out quickly.

The site leader, regardless of function, would show the video and then “localize” what that meant to their specific site. It’s a great time to give everyone time to think about the anticipated changes that are being suggested, e.g. more holistic training well beyond how to do their specific job; training on proper use of the lean toolset, aka “Lean 101”; understanding the culture change that the company seeks and the new expectations regarding hourly employee involvement, etc.

The manufacturing, engineering, quality, materials & scheduling, HR, maintenance, accounting functions begin to detail the specific priorities that will be tackled and resourced to significantly improve performance. The plant manager, with HR assistance, is leading the frequent communications and training necessary to quickly develop the staff team and first-line supervisors so they’re ready to begin engaging with hourlies in a different way.

Corporate leaders have made the commitment and local leaders, including the union, are expected to execute the strategy with no excuses.

This should be among the top priorities for the plant panager.

But make no mistake: If the factories aren’t noticeably moving the needle on performance improvements in the first two years, senior leaders will either lose interest or start replacing people. Senior leaders losing interest because they can’t find the results of their investment in CI on the income statement, the balance sheet or customer service reports is the second most common reason for CI going into the side ditch.

If the results aren’t there, then it’s reasonable to ask why not? Or, why are we doing this?

The better response, which in my opinion is far too rare, is for senior leaders to bow their necks and repeat their COMMITMENT to CI and start weeding out the leaders who aren’t leading in that fashion and think the necessary changes don’t apply to them. Absent that, the company’s CI plans are already doomed. Senior leaders don’t have a vote at this junction. It’s time to get on board and help lead the change or go work somewhere else.

Where Do Unions Fit In?

Now to the union part of the question. Just prior to the “all hands on deck” presentation by the CEO to all employees, the plant manager should have a short meeting with the local union reps and give them a heads up as to the content of the CEO's upcoming remarks. Ask them to be open minded as we start the journey and ask that they join us in supporting this No. 1 priority of the corporation.

Most importantly, begin the dialog on why the journey to sustained excellence is so important to the company’s future and to the plant’s future as well. Emphasize its importance in helping the plant sustain and grow jobs in the community, i.e., the job-security card.

Tie in the need to be competitive globally with the products made there and that maintaining the status quo ultimately leads to competitive/survival issues. We’re either getting worse or getting better -- there’s no standing still. Unless the specific plant is already on the “to be closed” list, then there is hope -- but they’ve got to get going and fast!

Involve Everyone in Helping to Improve the Operation

Also critical is to explain and discuss the intended culture change of involvement and for management to be more responsive to the needs of hourly people and the machine operators in particular. Pledge that your management team is there to serve and to help eliminate all the reasons why operators have a bad day, e.g., wrong operating instructions, errors in the bills of material, inadequate training, material supplier issues, poor maintenance, etc.

The biggest one of all is to involve everyone in helping to improve the operation. No longer will the hourly employees be asked to check their brains at the time clock and pick them up on the way out.

Create Positive Momentum

The new culture will seek to take full advantage of their experience, expertise and to solicit their ideas. (The urgency for different behavior by the leadership is critical. Nothing can kill interest faster than making this commitment and then supervisor and manager behaviors and attitudes towards hourlies don’t change. This is the third leading cause of failure.)

The leader must create urgency, with high energy and elevated expectations. While people are expecting change, don’t disappoint them!  The first six to 12 months will be critical to creating positive momentum.

Also, repeat the message to all who hesitate or openly resist: There will be no vote on this. All facilities, all functions will be participating. Corporate leaders have made the commitment and local leaders, including the union, are expected to execute the strategy with no excuses.  

I need to conclude at this point, but I’d be happy to go into more detail on some anecdotes with the union issues I’ve faced over the years. If any readers are interested, please submit specific questions and I’ll address them in a future piece.

Finally, it’s now been one year since I began writing these articles for IndustryWeek. I’m grateful for the growing number of readers and the interest being shown. My principal reason for doing this is to share my 42-plus years of experience (35 of those in the arena) so that the next generation or two can have their learning curves reduced.

If you are wrestling alligators that are taking a lot of time and keeping your operations from better performance, please take five minutes to enter your question. Maybe I can help.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a healthy, Happy New Year!

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." 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. 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.

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