The plant manager deliberately left the plant early, on the afternoon of 30 November 2017. His staff phoned him at 8 PM and at 9 PM with status updates, but at the 12 PM deadline he heard nothing. However, at 2:30 AM the following morning, they phoned to tell him that they had achieved the target production.
This marked the successful achievement of a campaign to lift production from 10.5 million units a month to what had always been seen to be the plant’s optimal and planned output at the time of commissioning in 2006, of 12 million units.
The result, on the last day of the month, marked the successful completion of the month-long “12 million units” campaign.
The plant manager had previously, in 2014-15, achieved a significant turnaround in employee attitude and plant performance – for details on this, click here.
Since then the plant had run at around the 10.5 million unit level with acceptable levels of quality.
But in fact the plant did not need to produce 12 million units because market demand in late 2017 was around 10.5 million unit. And in fact extra production would result in extra, unnecessary stocks which would entail negative consequences for working capital and risk, and possible shelf life problems.
The ‘Why’ of the Vision
So why did the plant manager embark on the seemingly-pointless exercise of raising production on the plant to its nameplate capacity when the extra production actually wasn’t needed?
The truth was both the manager personally and the plant itself were on burning platforms.
The manager had had an extended period of personal-family problems and issues and, by his own admission, had taken his eye off the ball, letting the plant coast along at a (barely) acceptable production rate.
The plant was producing at an acceptable level but was facing declining market demand and the possibility of rationalisation.
In September and October 2017, the plant manager received some tough-love advice from Wendy Lambourne, director of Legitimate Leadership.
He recalls that she said to him, “You can’t inspire and motivate your people to reach new heights if you are not yourself inspired to take your plant to a new level. You need a compelling vision which everyone is aligned and committed to achieving. And you need to create an environment in which people who can make this possible feel empowered, coached and supported.”
She was aware that although historically he had been a very successful plant manager, his personal and career trajectory had deteriorated. But she told him that she believed he could regain his position.
He recalls that she told him, “All the words that are coming from your mouth are excuses.”
“She knocked me off my chair a few times, until I realised that what she was saying was true.”
After some deep introspection, he realised that he would have to apologise to his staff and detail to them the personal reasons why he had lost focus and let them down, in order to regain their trust. This was the hardest part of the whole exercise he said.
He also had to go to his family to ask for their support.
He told his team, “I am back … we are going to get back to our winning ways.”
But that was not enough – he also needed to give his team a convincing “why” in order to galvanise them.
The “why” he gave them was not about proving to investors that their investment was justified. Nor was it about proving “nameplate capacity” for investors.
The “why” was about “enabling a sustainable output to meet the market demand which would result in a profitable business in the future and job security for those employed in it”.
But he also had to show senior management of the company why production should be raised – why they should agree with a target of 12 million units and also galvanise behind it.
Although 10.5 million units was the amount the market required of the particular product that the plant historically produced, additional units of other related products were being sourced by the company from its major competitor. The plant manager wanted to show that his plant could produce at a higher capacity – 12 million units total – as a first step to showing that, in the future, it could also produce those other products and replace the competitor’s supply. This, he told them in presentations, would go towards ensuring business growth and balanced profit margins.
The plant manager communicated this vision to everyone in his plant and to all the downstream and upstream plants, and to other suppliers that collectively produced the final product for the customers. He held formal sessions with groups of operators as well as invited guests from the company executive committee and other managers from across the site.
Customers and suppliers were often involved – so that everyone could learn more about their businesses.
He announced that the plant would make an average of 400,000 units each day in order to achieve 12 million in the 30 days – and that this would be achieved without any “whitecoats” on the plant. In other words, no experts from the outside. The people who ran the plant normally would make this happen.
Before announcing the commitment to the 12 million, the plant manager went to his team and asked them to come up with a plan of how they would achieve that level of output. In other words, while he’d given them the “why”, he expected them to come up with the “how” – although with close support, coaching, and empowerment from him, particularly close listening and “meaningful engagements”.
In the first part of November, as the new production levels were being pursued, he held group sessions to ask staff members what could be done to help them. He remembers particularly that staff asked for various “minor” things to be rectified so that they would not be distracted by them – for instance, they didn’t want to worry that there would be hot water for them to shower after a shift, or that their overtime was paid.
“We in management might think that these are small things, but for them they were huge.”
Working with the “how”
There were some non-negotiables – for instance, that the plant had to be stopped after every 45,000 units for cleaning and that planned maintenance had to be done.
In rethinking the “how”, the staff produced a number of creative and innovative ways of doing the job which had not been tried before. They realised that they had become “submissive” in terms of doing things in certain ways – for example, only doing plant maintenance “when the sun shines” (by which they meant “day time”).
So, working with the existing technology and equipment, they made some small but critical changes to the way things were done.
Each shift team set their targets for the shift and there was healthy competition among the different shift teams over the month.
They worked out a new way to do planned maintenance – for instance, they moved some of the cleaning gear and they did planned maintenance for four three-hour period rather than for a continuous 12 hours.
After the achievement of the targeted production a “recognition period” entailed closing the entire operation for the plant manager and other executives to congratulate everybody involved and allow them to share how they had achieved 12 million units, with photoshoots.
“In a production environment if you reach the target, you are regarded as a hero at the end of the month. The next day, at the beginning of the new month and the new production cycle, you are a zero. Normally, there is no pause to appreciate achievements – there’s just a question, ‘What’s next?’ That’s why we often feel empty inside – that we are not achieving anything. Whereas we are in fact we are achieving great things.
“So we needed to stop, leave everything, and celebrate in the moment.”
The challenge now
The challenge now, having proved that 12 million units per month is possible, is to ensure that this is not a once-off miracle but becomes the norm, with reliable and sustainable production of additional types of products. The plant manager is confident that this is absolutely doable.
The company’s marketing department has accepted that additional products will be produced by the plant; now, only a plan for sustainable production has to be presented.
“With focus groups from various categories of the plant staff (for instance stock management, quality, supply chain), we are currently examining and analysing the data particularly from November to see what happened and what can be improved and how new, different products can be added. Again, customers and suppliers are involved. No whitecoats from the company are involved in this.”
The lessons learned
Right in the beginning, you need to give people the “why” for the exercise. If they don’t see the meaning, they will not own it and you will not succeed.
You can’t inspire and motivate a group of people if you as the leader of those people are not inspired and motivated.
If you want your people to trust you and go above and beyond for you, then you need to trust them.
The way to achieve an extraordinary performance is not through instruction and micro-management but through coaching, empowerment and support.
You need to take time to celebrate an achievement before you move on to raising the bar yet again.
Wendy Lambourne of Legitimate Leadership, comments: “There were special reasons on this plant, both personal and business, why a campaign was embarked upon to show that production could be raised.
“Often in plants, with time, production plateaus. It is natural to reach a comfort zone and for standards to also plateau – or even slide back a little. If you want a different result you need to deliberately raise the bar. This is about having an attitude of being ‘happily discontented’.”