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Good leadership and management of the people who operate a new plant are just as vital as the new technology and systems applied. That seems to be the lesson learnt in a new manufacturing operation in South Africa recently.

January 2014

In January 2014 a new plant manager was appointed with the objective of improving the new plant’s performance. He understudied the then plant manager for one month and took over as plant manager on 1 February 2014. The plant, which had replaced an antiquated production plant, was operating 24/7 and employed 130 people.

The work and safety situation in the plant had been bad, and seemed to be worsening. For instance, in the first eight weeks of 2014, the plant had 12 safety incidents, compared to a total of nine incidents in the whole of 2013. The plant also experienced an increase in industrial relations cases in the first three months of 2014 – 36 disciplinary letters issued and two dismissals compared to a total of 55 disciplinary letters for the whole of 2013.

Says the new plant manager: “The workforce did what suited them. There was a lot of noise in the system – grievances, fighting, unsafe acts being done, non-adherence to standards. In fact most standards were not adhered to and anyway the standards were often poorly thought out. Workers who wanted to make a success of the plant were frustrated and appeared to be in the minority.”

The negative attitude of most workers was, he said, “primarily due to the way they had been treated; they had not been listened to or given direction. According to them, what they were doing was right. There was high absenteeism – they said that even if they were at work they felt useless.”

Despite some disciplinary action, there was still poor adherence to safe working practices, poor timekeeping, high absenteeism (particularly on weekends), and poor productivity.

 

March 2014: diagnosis

The first thing the plant manager did was to invite workers to come to him with their problems and complaints. His office was immediately besieged.

“Complaints came from all levels and in different forms. I became overwhelmed by all the problems presented to me. As a departmental leader I had to ensure that I adopted the right tone to minimise fire-fighting. The first step was not to flow with the noise but to deal with the root causes of these problems. I thought of one person to help me see the essence of what was wrong: Wendy Lambourne of Legitimate Leadership.”

Wendy spent five days in the plant across all shifts and observed first-hand the serious safety and other transgressions. She spoke to over 25% of the employees, at all levels.

Some of Wendy’s findings were:

  • The shift managers’ focus was not on their people and what they needed to give them in terms of Means, Ability and Accountability in order for them to make the right contribution, but on the results.
  • There was a lack of energy generally among people in the plant. Wendy says: “I saw lots of sitting and doing nothing, loitering, standing around and chatting in small groups outside the exits to the plant. It was clear that people were not engaged in their work.”
  • There was competition between the shift managers – to the point that outgoing shifts often deliberately left problems for the next shift.
  • Generally, employees had potential (many had post-matriculation qualifications or were studying), but most were hardly using their qualifications. There was a strong desire among most of them to learn and grow.
  • The primary means of training operators was “sit by Nelly” – a method which probably also infected them with the negative behaviours of other employees. 100% of the plant’s employees were (and still are) unionised.
  • Operators acknowledged that they were guilty of carelessness, negligence and wilfully taking shortcuts. Says Wendy: “Like any victim, however, they saw their behaviour as justified by poor management. In fact, many employees were angry, and for them non-compliance was a form of resistance.”

 

Overall, there were more negative than positive forces for change, Wendy found. At the same time, the new work organisation and new plant manager provided a golden opportunity to realise the potential of the plant and the people in it, she reported.

The plant manager comments: “The diagnostic also reflected poor management of the start-up of the new plant. Although the pilot plant had failed to produce as per plan, we skipped straight into full scale production, with the same people.

“You can have the best technology in the world, as we had here, and the best systems, but if you don’t have a workforce which clearly understands the key elements of a successful business unit and has the right attitude, you won’t succeed.

“There are three main processes or stages that must be followed when starting a new production plant: effective project management (machinery installations, etc); industrialisation (new plant introduction (NPI)); and full blown production. The workforce – the people – should be part and parcel of all developments in each process so that ownership and accountability are instilled.

“Our own industrial relations (IR) processes were contributing to the problem. The rules were vague and complex. For instance, they provided for several different types of absenteeism – poor timekeeping, awol (absent without leave), and failure to tell management – all of which were in essence absence from work. But the fragmentations made it complex and difficult to discipline and change the behaviour of the people.

“Most IR processes in South Africa are not designed for employees who are well educated and who have a full understanding of the Labour Relations Act. But our employees in the new plant were relatively well educated, which made it difficult for our relatively little-trained shift managers

“The other reason why the employees were ‘loose’ is that they were measured on wrong elements – for instance, attendance, personal protective equipment (PPE), etc – which are not options!

“I replaced this with a robust performance management system which focuses on measurement of contribution at the level of the role. This was done for all levels (shift managers, technical team, machine operators, etc).

“Also, one of my first actions was to roll out the new structure and job profiles to all employees which they understood and signed. We then developed KPAs (Key Performance Areas) and deliverables linked to KPIs (key performance indicators) so that they knew what was expected of them.

“The trade unions put up big resistance to this initially, saying that that was not what their members were employed for and that I was harassing them.

“In my view we all have to perform. But if you try to manage results you will always fail. You need to manage your inputs. The results are just a reflection of what you put in.”

 

April: gripe-to-goal

Led by Legitimate Leadership, and in accordance with Legitimate Leadership methodology, “gripe-to-goal” sessions were held with all employees on all the four shifts.

This in itself was an original step, says the plant manager: “Instead of the normal approach of operators coming to management with problems, and us trying to solve them, we were now engaging with the workforce in listing and categorising all the issues they raised, and working with them to resolve them. In that way we also wouldn’t have to go back and reclarify the decisions that we had come to.”

Says Wendy: “We thought the sessions with each shift would last around three hours. They lasted much longer – the longest went on for almost 12 hours!

“Importantly, we had a process, not a free-for-all because then you just get one long bitching session. We got people to work in small groups; we gave them specific questions. And we gave them ground rules – for instance, they weren’t allowed to get personal and everyone was given a chance to speak. Because we had structure, we could extract their issues.

“We also asked them for their possible solutions and what results they were expecting.

“We ended up with eight categories of issues which included the headings of Shift Patterns; Communications; Grade and Pay Scale; Safety; Management and Skills Development; and Role Clarification.

“There was particularly strong support for changing to another shift pattern which was less fatiguing and which would allow for more family time, especially at weekends. The previous shift pattern was particularly blamed for the high absenteeism rate and other negatives.

“Because we couldn’t have all 130-plus employees dealing with remedying these and other issues we formed a committee of 16 (including the plant manager, all four shift managers, and representatives from the operators and the engineering side of the plant).”

 

May: remedying the issues, and disappointment

Of the eight issues, six could be addressed by the people and management in the plant; the rest were largely long term organisational issues.

Individuals on the committee were allocated the responsibility of instituting remedial actions.

Soon, management proposed and instituted a new shift pattern. The union put up considerable resistance to this change because it apparently believed that with management taking charge of the situation, its powerbase was being undermined.

The other major issues were also quickly addressed.

Says Wendy: “After two months, about 80% of the issues had been remedied, particularly the shift system, and management was seen to be delivering on its commitments.

“We naturally thought that productivity and quality would then automatically start to improve. But we were disappointed! Although safety improved quickly, production and employee attitude didn’t seem to improve. In fact, in July, plant capacity utilisation was down to about 40%.”

Says the plant manager: “The problems certainly did not only lie with the operators. In fact most of the gaps were with the four shift managers, all of whom were members of the committee of 16. They were also trapped in victim mode and had lost direction.

“Like the operators, they believed that whatever was happening around them wasn’t their problem. They were like wheelbarrows – they only moved when they were pushed. This mindset had been created over a long period.”

 

August: weeding out the culprits

Says the plant manager: “At that stage, because of the failure to improve in certain areas, under Wendy’s guidance, the committee of 16 agreed that we had to confront the ‘culprits’ in each shift. By this was meant people who were strong influencers of others and who had particularly negative attitudes and habits.

“In fact, we 16 knew exactly who those people were! They numbered about 20 people – about five people per shift. Until then, management had not had the courage to tackle them.

“We decided that the shift managers should call in each culprit. They would say to them ‘you know that we know that you are a culprit so why don’t you just do everyone a favour and resign. It is after all better to leave than be fired.’ If they did not agree to resign, we would issue them each with a final letter of warning which would give them a limited time to change. But one further transgression would result in their dismissal.”

Says Wendy: “The strategy was to confront them head on and deal with any legal or other issues as they arose. If management had tried to take this action in March, the whole plant would have gone on strike. Now the plant manager could use all the credits he had earned from listening to the employees and acting to remedy their problems, being transparent, and being a man of his word.”

Says the plant manager: “It soon became apparent that the shift managers weren’t doing this properly – they did not have the courage and reverted to their old ways of ‘kiss and make up’.

“So I took over the job and met with each of the culprits. Two of the culprits actually resigned immediately after being asked; two applied for retrenchment and later got it. 12 of the 20 are still working at the plant. Two of the shift managers have also been replaced.”

He also let it be known that if absenteeism and production didn’t improve, the old shift system would be reverted to.

Says the plant manager: “It’s all about intent. By that time, I could do these things because the employees knew my intention was to save the jobs and the plant. Though many of them were not mature, they did appreciate that.”

 

September-October: team-build and maturity

The committee of 16 was disbanded in August, having achieved most of the remedial actions. Work on the rest is ongoing.

One of the actions which the committee of 16 had resolved on was to hold a team building day for the entire workforce. The teambuilding day included a soccer match and a barbecue (braai).

It included a presentation in which it was said that the only way to escape the vicious circle in the plant was for each person to begin with what they could control, which was “what they can give”.

That included forgiveness, and employees were invited to write on a piece of paper a wrong that had been done to them. They could (optionally) also write down the name of the person responsible for this wrong. They were then invited to read out the wrong to the whole group. As a symbol of change, forgiving and letting go, they then threw the papers into the fires.

Says the plant manager: “It was so easy to blame management because management had been so poor. But it emerged that there were also plenty of problems and conflict between the employees themselves, and that they needed to make a whole new start.”

Another problem, which had been agreed to by the committee of 16, was the general lack of maturity among the employees. Most of them had recently finished school and were quite young and impressionable.

It was decided to put employees through a course on maturity.

Says the plant manager: “I told the employees that this was our final gift to them. The course would paint a clear picture of what a mature employee looks like – after which the employees could decide whether they wanted to be mature or not.

“This was very important because for many of them nobody had ever sat down and told them ‘wake up and grow up’. Nobody had pointed out that behaving in an immature way was wrong – but also bad for them. The course is about what being a grown-up means.

“Many of these people had migrated from the rural areas to Johannesburg to look for work, and they had no guidance, nobody to call them to order. They come to work, and then they go back to their little rooms. In March 2014 I went to the township where most the employees lived to understand their living and social conditions. I concluded that it was not surprising that they fell under the sway of negative workers and shop stewards.”

In the course, called Facilitating the growth of myself and my colleagues, the fundamental message is that in the same situation the immature person focuses on what he/she can get while the mature person focuses on what he/she can give.

Basically, the presentation said, mature employees are respectful of others and of their job and adhere to rules, but also take initiative. Most of all, mature employees give honest, constructive feedback with the intention of helping and growing the other person.

Says Peter Jordan (of Legitimate Leadership), who conducted the maturity workshops: “You cannot separate the person and his/her maturity from the capacity to make a contribution. There is no way you are going to give at work when you are fundamentally a taker.”

Says the plant manager: “Because of production pressures, not everybody has been through this course yet. We have been selective so far, but my aim is that everyone will go through it.

“But having them sitting and debating maturity has already brought a lot out of them. It was humbling to see how they have stipulated the characteristics of a mature person, something they had never thought about before.”

 

November: the bottom line

Between January and mid-June 2014 a major strike in the one of the main industries to which the plant supplies meant that full production was not required from the plant.

Says the plant manager: “Had it not been for the strike, we would have short-supplied because at that time we were struggling to meet our budgeted volumes.

“But since August 2014, our production has risen to an average of 60-80% utilisation, and in October it was 100%. There is still more improvement to come.

“Most importantly, whatever is being produced now is being produced under normal conditions. Last year, in order to produce enough, we had to bend all the rules, using more overtime and using engineering people and managers for production – at much increased cost.

“Now, we are getting the same or better percentage output but with a lower cost structure. This helps lower the overall unit costs of the plant.

“For instance, last year we had two plant managers, eight shift managers and 32 artisans; now we have exactly half that – one plant manager, four shift managers and 16 lead operators.”

 

December onwards: still under construction

Wendy believes that the plant manager has developed hugely as a manager and a person during the year.

Regarding his own growth path, he says: “I don’t have words to describe it. My journey in 2014 made me realise that you cannot call yourself the greatest if you do things by yourself. You can only make it if you empower those who are directly involved with the actual work. You have to ensure that you give the guys the Means, the Ability – that you enable them. I have learnt to trust people; I have learnt that listening to people will make you address their concerns accordingly and constructively guide them – not by removing them from the area, but by guiding them and growing them there.

“We’ve only just started here. My next phase is that operators must be the ones to deliver production by running the machines effectively and in full. This will involve gradual handing over of control to cultivate total accountability by providing the Means and Ability and creating an environment in which the employees can grow. Currently, shift managers and lead operators are still primarily responsible. No wonder the ordinary operators were frustrated and bored. My challenge now is how do I give those operators the space to explore and experiment without compromising their safety?”

Says Wendy: “The ordinary operators have considerable cognitive ability. Previously that ability went into griping. If you focus that same intellectual ability on the job – because everyone is on the same side and their will is engaged – things can be even better.

“If management had tried what is now being proposed back in January, the employees’ response would have been ‘what will you give me?’”