In my early twenties I was put in charge of a Final Test group at a capital equipment company. This group was responsible for the last step prior to shipment to the customer. The equipment we tested sold for well north of $1 million. Given the size of the company at the time, missing even one shipment could have a material effect on earnings of this publicly traded company, and a major snafu could be the difference between profit and loss. Do you wonder why they put an inexperienced kid like me in charge? I was surprised myself. The truth is that the position had an average tenure of less than a year, and I am guessing they could not find anyone else.
My management was clear that schedule was critical and they monitored my progress each day as the financial period came to a close. As an enthusiastic young manager I threw myself into the task at hand. When I saw a machine slipping behind in it’s process, I scurried about – telling people to work late, canceling vacations, expediting parts, pushing as hard as I could. I was not above raising my voice where I thought it was needed. After all, what we were doing was crucial to the success of the company. Each month would end with me exhausted and my crew close to revolt. We nearly always hit our target but always just barely, and at the last minute. Overtime and scrap charges mounted. I could not understand why my crew was so unmotivated. What we did was so crucial to the success of the company! People started transferring out of the department. I began to fear for my job.
In hindsight it is easy to see that my company could have used some help to insure the goals and objectives of the company were aligned from top to bottom in the company. I really could have benefited from some outside help in getting everyone on the same page. Instead, I was left to my own devices.
Defeated and a little bit desperate I called a crew meeting on the first day of a new month. My strategy was simple; I would beg. I spilled my guts telling them about the pressure I was under and how if they did not perform their jobs to plan the whole company and the stock price would be affected (not to mention my employment status). I did not get any real sympathy from these guys. In fact, at that point the prospect of regime change probably sounded pretty good to them. I did get some clear pointed questions about how the process worked overall, and how things were tracked and measured. I laid out the info I had and these guys were genuinely interested. I agreed to share status with them before each shift. With a little tweaking, this information could be used see how we are doing against our schedule and to make adjustments as needed.
Pretty soon crazy things started to happen. When I noticed a machine was slipping its schedule I went over to talk to the crew only to find that they had already readjusted their schedules to compensate. The guys worked more closely with support staff and soon other departments were working with more urgency too. It did not stop there. I noticed people were not working where I had assigned them. When I investigated I found that the crew had designated certain people “experts” in certain parts of the system and they were called in for help in solving difficult problems.
People started asking me some very interesting questions. They asked about ways the test process could be streamlined. They asked for tools that would make them more efficient. They asked for training to give them the skills they needed to be more effective. My days were spent working on supporting my team as opposed to yelling at them and ordering them around. I think they may have actually stopped hating me. Of course we hit our targets with room to spare. Overtime dropped by 30%. There was a bit of “trial and error” in how we got there, but we got there.
What did I learn? Everybody, even the crew on the shop floor, needs a “line of sight” to the business objectives of the company. Their goals and skills need to be aligned with these as well. When people have a good grasp of how their job affects the bottom line, and have the skills and tools they need to be successful, everything changes. Most folks are smart and creative and will make good decisions if given the context to make them.
I took this “education” on to my next position (a promotion). Skills and abilities as well as personality and temperament need to have a “line of sight” to the business objectives of the company. This process needs to start at the top and incorporate all parts of the company. The school of hard knocks is an effective school, but an expensive one for the company. This is where someone outside the fray can help to get this valuable work done.