I began my career in industry in the mid-1970s at a very large factory of an off-road equipment manufacturer. Fresh out of engineering school I was anxious to start making things happen but soon was given a significant reality check. The plant I had hired into was extremely hierarchical. By this I mean that bosses were considered chiefs and employees Indians, and the only interaction was when a chief was telling an Indian what to do. As an employee—regardless of level—your job function was to do what the boss said, period.
The powers-that-be weren’t looking for feedback or your ideas on how to improve processes. Rather, they were looking for those who, when told to jump, would only ask “how high?” From what I’ve come to understand this wasn’t unusual at large corporations in that era.
To say the least, this wasn’t what I had bargained for when I had positioned myself for a career in manufacturing. I wasn’t happy and after a few years I actually started considering careers outside of industry—not just an employer change—since it seemed that hierarchical management was “the norm” across industry. I had studied engineering because I wanted to create and improve, not just execute and perpetuate. If this attitude seems a bit rebellious you need to remember that Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album had been released about that time (in 1979) and I was certainly beginning to feel Un-“Comfortably Numb” about continuing my career in industry.
Anyway, just when I was about ready to go back to school, I was given an opportunity to transfer to a factory within the corporation that produced and marketed products that were considered outliers. In fact the factory that I was transferring to was referred to by the rest of the company (in a somewhat derogatory terms) as the “Toy Factory.” In other words, our products weren’t the company’s traditional product lines.
When I got to my new location I went to work for a manager who would virtually change my career and life, and for the positive. He reaffirmed the career decision I had made about working in industry and over three decades later I can still say I’m working in it. Let me explain.
Like a lot of others, my new boss liked to review his people’s progress with face-to-face weekly meetings. At the previous factory I had worked these meetings pretty much took the form of a one-sided “boss-to-employee” conversation where the employee received their “hit list” of job responsibilities for the upcoming week. With my new boss the conversations were still somewhat one-sided but now more “employee-to-manager.” In other words, he pretty much just sat there and waited to hear: a) What I had accomplished over the last week, and b) What I was hoping to accomplish going forward. At first I was a bit disconcerted by this new “modus operandi,” but after a few awkward (and relative short) such meetings—where I really had nothing much to report—I began to feel like I had finally figured out what the guy wanted. He wanted my ideas! I actually felt liberated.
For the next several weekly meetings I was “loaded for bear” with ideas for how to improve things. For each proposal I came in with a business case justification for why the changes should be made. At first my new boss appeared to be happier. After a few meetings, though, where I had (in my own opinion, anyway) made fabulous process improvement suggestions—by the way, I never got the “go ahead” to execute—I started getting a feeling again that things weren’t going so well. In fact, shortly thereafter as I walked into his office for one of the weekly updates, he asked me to close the door. Uh oh?!?
My manager started out by saying—in what appeared to me to be a fairly ominous manner—that he thought I had a good “head on my shoulders” and appeared to have “a lot of energy” but he was wondering when I was going to start doing something. I was shocked. I told him I was doing all of the day-to-day things that were required by my job and, in fact, had made several suggestions to him for improving the efficiency of those tasks. He smiled and told me that he hadn’t brought me in for what I could do relative to tactical activity, or just for ideas. Rather, he wanted people to assume ownership of the processes they were responsible for and implement improvements to them. And that while all of the ideas I had presented him seemed good, he was wondering when I’d actually start implementing some of them.
Whoa! At first I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. Remember, I had spent the past several years working in an environment where you only did what you were told and would get a tongue-lashing if tried to make changes without several levels of approval. Now, if I had understood him right, my boss wanted me to make improvements on my own prerogative. It seemed like I had died and gone to heaven! This was the opportunity I had been waiting for.
I’ll admit that I was a bit scared at first. There is a big difference between putting down on paper ideas for process improvements and actually figuring out the specifications of and selling changes to affected stakeholders. And then, measuring impact and reporting on whether the impact of the change (based on the idea I had championed) had actually been as good as envisioned. Talk about exposure! As can be expected, some things that I went forward with turned out better than others. And there were even a few times I had to admit that my ideas hadn’t really worked out the way they needed to. But I can tell you this. My weekly update meetings with my boss got a lot more relaxed and I finally started looking forward to them. And he did too. And they often went over—way over—their scheduled time duration.
Later, after I had developed a good working relationship—and friendship—with my boss, I asked him about the personal development transition I had just gone through. He had also worked at different factories in that corporation so he understood this was an issue most “transferees” had to go through and that some would be able to adjust and that others wouldn’t. Further, that those failing to become more self-directed and acting never really had much chance of progressing up the management ladder in the environment of the Toy Factory. I asked why there was such a difference in culture and leadership between the “old” product factories and this factory. His reply, which follows, is worth documenting.
As you might imagine, the products produced at the Toy Factory were for a completely different type of market from which the corporation was used to servicing. And while the company’s traditional products were in established markets where an acceptable, established competitive status quo had been established, those from the Toy Factory were only niche players. Referring to my previous article on “step function” vs. “incremental” improvement strategies, this meant that in those traditional markets incremental improvements would likely be enough to maintain the existing competitive position of those products. So the thinking at the corporation’s traditional factories was that improvements weren’t as critical to overall success and it was more important to ensure nothing was done to upset that “gravy train.” Consequently, all changes had to be approved through a multi-leveled hierarchical command structure.
In the market the outlier factory was trying to establish itself in, though, no such acceptable competitive status quo existed. In other words, more market share and more profitability was needed to justify even staying in the market. This meant that the business needed to be managed in more fluid, flexible ways. Hence, all employees had authority for change management in their areas of responsibility. Of course this authority included formulating, justifying and selling them.
So how did it work out? Pretty well, I’d say. The Toy Factory’s business grew enough that the corporation eventually built a division of several factories upon the basis of what it had accomplished. Over the 20 years I worked there the annual sales from that outlier product line increased from a couple of hundred million to several billion! Personally, I eventually became one of the top executives—first at the Toy Factory and that in its division. The problems we faced were myriad and the work wasn’t easy. But the work didn’t seem “hard” because it was so rewarding—personally and professionally—and fun. My years with the Toy Factory were the happiest time of my career.
What happens to companies that rely on the status quo and are satisfied with only incremental improvements? You only need to look at the U.S. automotive industry in the 1970s and 1980s to see what happens to companies that are unable to move out of a hierarchical type of organization. Which raises the question of whether all companies, regardless of current product and marketplace success, should ever rely on a “risk avoidance strategy” than one of “step function” improvement.
The next article will build on this one by discussing the issue of how to effectively formulate and move your process improvement ideas forward.