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The Materials Analyst, Part 101: Whatever happened to the new world of work we were promised? Part 2

If you care about your company’s culture and its ability to attract high-quality employees, it’s time to look deep inside the mind of your organization and ask the hard questions—with no jargon, please. What are the characteristics of a company that does more than pay lip service to the maxim that “our people are our greatest resource” and actually has practices and a culture that demonstrate faith in its people?

If you care about your company’s culture and its ability to attract high-quality employees, it’s time to look deep inside the mind of your organization and ask the hard questions—with no jargon, please.

What are the characteristics of a company that does more than pay lip service to the maxim that “our people are our greatest resource” and actually has practices and a culture that demonstrate faith in its people?



?This series of articles is designed to help molders understand how a few analytical tools can help diagnose a part failure. Michael Sepe, our analyst and author, is an independent materials and processing consultant based in Sedona, AZ. Mike has provided analytical services to material suppliers, molders, and end users for 20-plus years. You can reach him at [email protected].
Here are a few questions to ask and things to look for as you perform an audit of the work environment around you. Some may be things that only upper management can answer, but most will be obvious to anyone working for the company. How you answer these questions may not dictate the difference between survival and failure. Companies can endure periods of poor management practices. But it will determine the quality of life in the workplace for you and your coworkers. And it will define the type of talent that you can attract and keep.

Is your company faster or slower than it was five years ago? That may sound like a ridiculous question. After all, our plants are filled with computer-controlled, closed-loop presses capable of cycling faster than ever before. Trade show news routinely focuses on the speed with which the newer-generation machines are able to produce parts. But the type of speed I am talking about here is the overall speed of the business practices within the company. What is the true speed of all the business activities? How fast does a customer receive an answer on a quote, a pending delivery, or a quality problem? How quickly are needed people hired? What type of time and effort are required to add a supplier to the vendor base or issue a purchase order? How many signatures does it take to spend $1000, $5000, $25,000? How rapidly are important decisions on capital equipment expenditures made?

Do your systems serve your business endeavor or does your business endeavor serve your systems? This is a corollary to the first question. I am still waiting to hear someone utter the words, “We just installed our new business system software and things are working great!” Anyone who has been through such a launch knows the nightmare scenario of long days and sleepless nights in the run up to “going live.” I work with a woman who designs business systems of elegant simplicity that rely on little more than spreadsheet technology.

But despite some positive changes in the last few years, the state of the art in business systems software assumes that every company is the size of General Motors. These systems impose a crushing time demand on people to feed data into the system when they could be engaged in real, productive activities like taking care of customers or growing the new business unit. I once received a complaint from an IT person that I needed to stop adding customers so quickly because the system was running out of customer numbers. This is a perfect example of the inward focus that these systems tend to engender.

Which brings us to the next question.

Are your support departments (IT, HR, finance, purchasing) actually providing support to the core business or are they busy carving out territorial empires for themselves? Unfortunately, in many manufacturing operations, the same metrics of productivity that are painstakingly applied to the floor somehow do not translate to those departments that are responsible for ensuring that the operation has what it needs to operate. Instead, these departments take on a life of their own, often at the expense of the core business.

I worked with a firm at one time where the head of IT would dole out auxiliaries like cables, printers, and even floppy disks (remember them?) as though they were a precious commodity that only the IT department, in its infinite wisdom, knew how to apportion to the masses. In this same operation the HR department had just received some relatively lavish new office accommodations as part of a remodel. The head of the department then complained that the molding machines were too close to her office door and she could hear them.

Not only did this reflect an ignorance of how her salary was paid, but it also conveyed an attitude that the people who work in the office are cut from a better grade of cloth than those on the production floor. If you look at the companies that have enduring success in their operations, you will find that those doing the work trust their leadership. That trust is engendered by the leader’s manifest respect for the followers.

In the 1960s, Robert Townsend took the helm at Avis, a company that had lost money for each of the 13 years it had been in existence. It was a radioactive position that no one wanted. In less than three years he had turned it around. One thing he made sure of very early on was that support departments were in fact providing support for the core business of renting cars. He also insulated the people below him from the busy work of providing meaningless reports to top management. And he and his executive team went out into the field for two-week stints to work as agents at the rental counters. This experience created such a deep respect for the people on the line, that when requests came in from the field for things that would make the people in the field more effective, there was little doubt that the request would be addressed.

Is your company offering services or innovative manufacturing pro­cesses that it did not provide five years ago? In a world where it is the sworn task of every professional buyer to turn everything into a commodity, how do you avoid becoming part of that trend? Innovation is the obvious answer. But innovation is not a program you can launch as a company initiative. It has to be ingrained in the company culture. It involves speed, stamina (both physical and psychological), the willingness to fail, and an understanding that the mentality that cultivates neat and tidy systems is not compatible with the mess of creating new things.

Most of the focus in our industry, and in most of manufacturing for that matter, has been on conformance to standards (ISO, QS, TS, etc.). Of course there is a need for standards and the normalization of practices. But I am afraid that we have gone too far with this thinking. Not only does the compliance come with an excessive administrative burden, but it also flushes from the company any tendency to do things outside the lines. Yet outside the lines is exactly where all the interesting stuff happens that has the potential to change the game.

Business has a penchant for trendy sayings. One of the favorites is, “Do it right the first time.” The problem is that nothing that will truly change an industry or any field of endeavor comes out right the first time. So, in my opinion, a company needs to have a split personality to do well in the new environment where your competition halfway around the globe is a mouse click away.

In the area where you are doing the things that you have “always done,” the things that pay the bills on a week-to-week basis, you need to have your documented practices and procedures. But somewhere in the back room you had better have someone engaged in doing weird stuff that has the potential to change your business three to five years down the road. This endeavor will be messy and chaotic. It should be unfettered from the demands and limitations of the company systems. It should have the ability to work at lightning speed, with all that this implies in terms of authorizations and signoffs. It should be off limits to all the VPs, who will have a tendency to “pull up the flowers by the roots to see how they are growing,” as Townsend put it. It should also be off limits to the Six Sigma Black Belts and kaizen gurus, who will try to clean the place up and make it conform to requirements. And it should be expected and applauded that a home run will come out of this area accompanied by 10 or 20 false starts or failures.

This area should be a zone where the language of continuous improvement is not part of the vocabulary. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT media lab and a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design, observed that “incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.” Innovation is not about little steps; it is about iconoclastic activity and disruptive technologies. If the company culture cannot handle it, put it in a building 500 yards down the road where no one can bother the staff. And beware of the temptation to call it an R&D department and head it up with a professional manager. My experience is that R&D departments tend to run on a slower clock than the production area and therefore they fail to provide the needed assistance when opportunities arise on a tight timetable. This area should run faster than production, not slower.

A corollary to this is that the company should have methods for rapidly vetting new technologies. You can read 20 advertisements in a trade journal all touting products guaranteed to solve all your manufacturing problems. Only a small percentage of these actually work. You need to have processes for quickly sorting the gold from the garbage.

Do your leaders speak of the company with passion and in plain English? I was fortunate enough to work for a company that was still being run by its founder. He had an unwavering vision of what the company was about and the values were clear because they were imparted face-to-face on a regular basis. There was no need for a Lucite mission statement in the lobby. The second generation continued the focus and drive and managed successfully through some challenging times. But with a change of ownership came a completely different type of language that was vague in its message and passionless in its outlook. Consider this vision of the future: “We have developed a proactive strategy to position the business for growth and longevity.” What? As Jon Stewart says, “That’s not even a sentence; it’s just a big bag of words.” Vision that is cast in terms so nonspecific is not a vision at all.

How much authority do you have in your current position to do your job (conduct typical day-to-day activities, spend money, try new things that can potentially improve the company) before you have to start getting “signoffs” from higher up? If a decision has to be referred to the next layer of management, how long does it take to get to get an answer? And how often are you asked for a report on your activities? These are all gauges of how much trust is built into the company structure. It is an important indicator of how likely it is that change will occur within the organization.

Finally, does your company look outside for ideas and inspiration? A lot of us go to trade shows and read the trade publications. And that’s fine. The problem is that after a while we are talking to the same circle of people and we get into a comfort zone. We benchmark our company to other companies in our industry. The problem with benchmarking, as Tom Peters points out, is that you spend five years modeling your goals and practices after the best in the industry and you become as good as they were five years ago.

What about ideas from other industries? My colleague and friend, John Bozzelli, carries with him an object that looks something like an hourglass. It actually is a model for two hoppers. One is designed using the angle of repose, which ensures the smooth flow of material and a true first-in first-out conveying process. The other one looks like most dryer hoppers built for plastics processing today. The angle on this side results in rat-holing, a process where the material in the center flows through much faster than the material along the sides.

Consider the implications this has for achieving a consistent drying process in your plant. Then consider how critical drying is to attaining consistent processes and properties in your raw materials. As John points out, the correctly designed hopper exists in the real world. It comes from the agricultural industry, where it was figured out long ago as a best practice for uniformly drying grain. This is just one of a number of fundamental needs that our industry has where a similar problem has already been solved by another industry.

It’s not as sexy as that new controller that can dry-cycle the clamp in 1.9 seconds and divide first-stage filling into 15 segments. But the impact on productivity of streamlined resin flow through all the hoppers in your plant is probably greater when you consider all the implications. How much money is lost because of leaking nonreturn valves in our injection units? Yet the builders of automobile engines long ago solved the problem of reliable valve seating.

Why do we as an industry think that all of the solutions to our problems must come from within our industry? Why do we as companies think that all of the ideas needed for our continued success reside within our four walls? And what do you think the effect would be on your organization if line people who showed drive and initiative were plucked from their current positions and given the responsibility and the authority to investigate and implement changes such as these?

Jerry Garcia once said, “We do not want to be the best at what we do, we want to be the only ones who do what we do.” Think about that the next time you walk through your plant and imagine the transformation that could occur if everyone in your organization was dedicated to creating a company where that vision was alive and well. I suspect that the ROI would be amazing.
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