Sherrie Ford, Ph.D.
Principal, Change Partners, LLC
IndustryWeek Growing Companies, June 1999
The opportunity for small manufacturing entrepreneurs to succeed is greater today than ever before. That's largely due to a massive shift on the part of large OEMs to let go of the "granddaddy strategy" of vertical integration. This movement continues to widen the opportunities for small manufacturers, as large corporations outsource everything not considered their "core."
Growing companies everywhere are the beneficiaries of this trend. But what eventually happens at these small manufacturers is comparable to what happened to their next-tier-upward counterparts. That is, there is a curious disengagement of the relationship between founders / leaders and the workforce that rallied behind their start-up visions of glory.
NO LONGER LITTLE
Success breeds a whole new set of problems from the ones faced back at start-up – when you used an abandoned chicken house to machine an invention, painted it yourself for a doubtful purchasing agent, landed that first fabulous purchase order, then trucked in workers (most of them family) from wherever you could find them.
Successful executives in today's growing companies, from my experience, find themselves in a peculiar bind. The personal charisma and invention that worked so well in recruiting a workforce to be part of the heroic "we'll figure it out as we go" approach have become less effective now when it comes to keeping up with increasing customer expectations. This occurs while coping with business success beyond their wildest dreams, as they move – at least partially – to world-class manufacturing techniques, best practices, or lean production. Just as the large OEMs are driving out the waste in their own companies, now the small-factory owners, too, in going beyond the chicken-house mentality, enter the urgencies of reducing cycle time, achieving six-sigma quality, and coming to grips with the radically new roles that their paying customers have come to play in the day-to-day running of their home-grown factories.
PROBLEMS OF SUCCESS
Increasingly you are besieged with the nightmare question: What would happen if a competitor could do what I do only better, faster, and cheaper? Everyday you struggle to retain the loyalty of your customers. Every day becomes D-day; every day is win or lose. These are not the issues you faced at start-up.
Charisma, you're finding, isn't quite enough anymore. The challenge of creating something out of nothing no longer inspires your employees. In fact, they are getting a little tired of your increasingly sour expressions and short temper. Some are quitting. Production, quality, and even safety start to suffer. Most frustrating of all, as the founder of the enterprise, you are baffled at how little problem-solving ability your workers have, how rigid they are when you bring in new equipment and technology, and how focused they are on paychecks, vacation time, and other entitlements. You find yourself shocked to overhear the word "union" in the air and scandalized at their ill temper toward meeting your customer's demands.
Unlike your big customers, though, you don't have deep pockets to offer classes on problem-solving or hire consultants. You certainly are grateful to your customers who offer advice as they sign another contract. They show you their "university" campus created to help them stay competitive, or they loan you the slides their consultant gave them on "managing change." But there is no way you can stop what you are doing – for them – to build a campus or show those slides to your workers.
Unbeknown to you, there is an invisible but powerful force at work within your work culture. It was there when first you brought on employees, and it is there now. But it looms out of touch because you have changed the vision of the company. The workforce is disengaged, distracted, with nothing but seemingly selfish interests on their minds. Why?
The answer is that your vision has changed – albeit gradually – from "Let's see if we can pull this venture off" to "Let's see if we can meet our
"Unbeknown to you, there is an invisible but powerful force at work within your work culture."
customer's specific requirements for quality, delivery, and price before someone else does." But the latter is a significantly different vision. It's a vision that needs a complete overhaul at the work-culture level, which will not happen by reading all those great books on managing change or reviewing all those slides. These tools will tell you only what you already know: Your workers are not on board, and it's up to you to find out how to get them there. Meanwhile you find yourself having to suppress your instincts more often than you'd like, or worse, blaming your workforce ills on drugs, the school system, Generation X, cheap foreign labor, or the federal government.
LOOK FOR LEGACY SYSTEMS
The invisible but powerful forces at work within your work culture, the ones that are thoroughly out of synch with your vision of today, are "legacy systems." Your workers still are driven by a vision, but it's the one linked to the original "Let's see if we can pull this venture off." Day-today life has proved that not only can the venture be pulled off, it has been pulled off, again and again.
A famous legacy system, I find, from the worker's view is: "Things never change around here." This is a profound belief despite the repeated successes of the home-grown company, achieved precisely because of constant change, whether it's software, machines, pay systems, environmental performance, and the like.
What can you, as an executive of a successful and growing manufacturing operation, do about legacy systems? First, you must let go of the notion that your work culture is directly affected by you or anything you do. Your influence is, at best, indirect. What in the beginning may have drawn people to work for you, resulting in achieving the original goal, has been replaced by new, driving influences that are not apparent either to you or to them.
There usually are five to seven major themes that work cultures related to in manufacturing. These issues emerge when the culture as a whole is formally queried as to what it will take to deal with all your overbearing and demanding customers. When the current state is put before them – that they are not in synch with today's vision – they most willingly articulate (regardless of literacy level) the specifics of what must change. At the same time, employees, without fully knowing how they do it, describe the legacy systems that mold their beliefs and behaviors.
Example: In querying one particular work culture, one of the issues identified was "communication." On a card that later was clustered
"The workforce is disengaged, distracted, with nothing but seemingly selfish interests on their minds. Why?"
on a pile of communication issues was written "parking lot." What does "parking lot" have to do with communication? I couldn't remember seeing any other work culture generate that meaning of communication, but at this plant, the workers later explained, "where you park tells you who you are." A legacy system was that moment made visible. Take away assigned parking, and the parking lot now communicates something else, something closer to today's vision.
That is just a brief illustration of how monumental some things are, rightly or wrongly, to some people. I can hear you asking, "Good grief, does that mean they resent my big office?" My answer: "No, not unless it repeatedly comes out as an issue."
ORDER OF OPERATIONS
The most significant message for the successful but now frustrated entrepreneur can be found in the order of the five to seven issues as presented by employees. It is the order in which the issues are correctly addressed that is the key to leading a now resistant work culture to the next level of history-making achievements (and to winning the customer battles).
When the entire culture has the opportunity to map influences among some typical issues – e.g., quality, management, communication, zero unplanned downtime, wages and benefits, safety, and training – an "order of operations for change" emerges. That is, if you build a change strategy based on what your work culture says is the correct order of operations, you will find that every single employee understands the new vision, his or her role in it, and how he or she will be called on to change. They also will understand what to expect as you, the entrepreneur / leader, now clarify what others previously could not see: "Let's see if we can pull this venture off, forever."
And you, as the successful entrepreneur / leader, will come to see what you did not see before, but what now is deeply clear to all: Something seems to have gone wrong, here is what is missing, here is what must change, here is how you – yourself, your employees, your company – will get back on track.
Sherrie Ford, founder and principal with Change Partners, L. L. C., Athens, GA, is a frequent presenter / author on topics related to legacy systems inherent in work cultures. She and her partner, Steve Hollis, assess factory cultures all over the U. S. to determine their "order of operations" for effectively adapting to change. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org