"If you really want to know, you ruined my life."
This was Bob’s response to a well-intentioned, "How's it going?" from me.
The Work Changes
Bob, who felt that I had ruined his life, was a team member in a section of a manufacturing plant. I was production manager of the area. Bob had experienced quite a few changes in his work situation in the previous few months. (We all had, but the difference was, not everybody felt like their life was being ruined). As production manager, I personally had become the symbol of everything that was changing in my area of responsibility and rightly so.
And a lot was changing:
- The challenge was clear. A new model vehicle had a price on its head in the marketplace and we needed to do our part to reduce production costs while achieving a zero tolerance policy for slips in quality or safety.
- A new style of assembly line had been proposed and accepted under the heading of "simplifying" our area of manufacturing.
- We were engaged in a company-wide effort to solicit the "manufacturing voice" in the early stages of vehicle development to reduce issues with close-to-launch trials.
- Our kaizen team was experimenting with methods of transporting all the parts and pieces in the shop without forklifts.
- To avoid the potential chaos of changing everyone's jobs in the plant at once (8,000 of us at that time), it was decided that some production shops would make their necessary process changes before others.
On this last point, we were chosen to be the first. This made business sense for the entire vehicle making enterprise, but logistically it felt like a nightmare. We had to keep producing the previous vehicle model components alongside the new model ones. Don't ask how we did it… Let’s just say what we had going was a symphony of complicated moves and counter-moves accomplished at warp speed. But with all of these changes, how to meet our challenges was up to us.
The Plot Thickens
Bob wasn't thrilled with the nature, scope, and speed of the change. He used to drive a forklift, and viewed them as an earned freedom compared to working on an assembly line. He wasn't alone.
I had heard this perspective from Bob and other team members during small group idea exchanges I held in the months preceding launch. But forklifts were not on the table for discussion, tuggers with custom designed trailers to hold specific parts were. Bob and his peers were welcome to participate in designing the new transportation methods by offering compelling ideas related to a "forklift-less" worksite.
Many team members throughout the shop jumped in with both feet. They brought forth an avalanche of ideas, an absolute treasure chest. Managing the ideas, experiments, evaluations, confirmations, and rejections was a massive undertaking. It was a good problem to have as a manager, but for some team members, it didn't make sense to engage people who had never been involved with transportation of parts before.
Some people turned to me with a wounded look and resentful question: "How could a production manager let people with little conveyance experience design equipment for our future?" I explained that qualified experience comes in different forms. They had more than enough experience with kaizen, quality circles, safety teams, and A3 problem solving. Besides that, the door was open for anyone to join in. All ideas were vetted equally.
On the morning I learned that Bob felt I ruined his life, we were about 3/4 of the way into the launch. Bob had been on the struggling “simplified” assembly line for a month. He was angry, but I didn't duck or dive. I was still figuring a lot out as a leader, but one thing I knew was that while these situations are unpleasant and painful, they can be tremendously eye opening.
I figured that whatever came next from Bob would provide insight into why the line was struggling, making him and others miserable. So, I invited him to meet with me one-on-one and share his view. Here is some of what I learned:
- What I observed is was just a fraction of what was actually go on.
- Without the previous moving conveyor, team members couldn't tell if they were ahead or behind resulting in a continuously moving bottleneck. While the product launch team and I were looking for a technical fix we were missing the impact peer pressure was having. Frustration grew between those who "got it" and the ones who were so-called "slow" to catch on.
- The launch team was focused on the major punch list (or close out) items yet missing the small hiccups that the team members were struggling to fight… alone.
Bob said absolutely nothing about forklifts.
Talk About "On The Job Training"
As I suspected, I came away with invaluable learning about what it takes to lead massive operational change. Almost everything the line was struggling with tied back to a management system that either wasn't in place or hadn't been modified for the new lines. System preparation and confirmation is as important as process readiness but these aren’t as visible until they fail.
I realized how important it is to establish the critical "who, what, when, where, which, how, how many" for line management. Standardized procedures from our "old life" dropped off the radar as we focused on more technical concerns. Shift start up procedures, team leader control boards, home position of conveyance equipment, traffic routing – all of these needed immediate attention if we were going to stabilize the worksite.
I was reminded about planning and skill development and standardized work – the critical role all of these things play, and how important it is to engage line leaders in this work. Without that upfront, defensive walls can be built so fast you don’t even notice them going up.
More than anything, any team undergoing change has to be actively managed; we can’t just assume everyone will “settle in” to the new work. Hour long quick kaizen sessions several times a day or as needed helped in this regard, balancing the work and enabling people to actually achieve some new foundation of standardized work. While all of this work was happening, I knew that how a leader and a management team spends their time is watched intently. Any cracks in a united, focused implementation effort leaves a lot of room for issues to spiral and hurts morale.
It’s a Choice to Work Together
After talking with Bob, I was able to re-focus with a more grounded, visual strategy for the shop. It might seem strange to get this from one conversation, but I did. Even more strange was how much value I got from one question Bob threw out as a challenge to me: "Do you even think this stupid line is capable of running like the previous ones?"
My reply came from a pool of confidence I didn't know I had: "Yes, I do. It's going to be even better because we designed out the flaws of the previous lines, and we have a high level of skill and energy committed here. Besides, you and I have never seen that we need each other to make this work. That's big… if it’s true for you, too."
"How long is it going to take?" Bob asked.
"One year. We'll hit our previous metrics in 9 months and people will be rocking with it in a year. No one will want to go back to the previous lines. Not even you, I bet."
We ended with a handshake, standing on firmer ground. I walked away thinking about how hard it is to for huge change to take place. Bob had reinforced my belief that it happens with one-on-one connections, if we can just get our egos out of the way. Hard stuff.
The last time I saw Bob, I was walking through the shop after being gone for a year (I had rotated to another assignment). He was working on the much-disputed assembly line. I didn’t want to interrupt him, but I wanted to at least wave. When he saw me, his face broke out in a wide grin, one I’d never seen before. He pointed at the metrics board beside the line and gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.
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