Monday, September 16, 2013

Employee Engagement: Going to the Dogs ... for lessons

Dogs are wonderful animals and we can learn so much through our interactions with them.

We have two miniature poodles, Roxy and Sam.  Roxy is now approaching 13 and Sam is a rescue dog we adopted as a puppy about 4 years ago.

Dogs exhibit traits that actually do have a lot to do with good management.

They're social animals.  They like company whether it's humans or other dogs.

They seek out leadership.  Bred with an innate sense of hierarchy, they obey the being that they perceive as their pack leader.  That could be their owner/master - or it could be one of the dogs in the pack.  This was something I really learned about from watching and reading Cesar Millan - The Dog Whisperer.  If you want a dog to obey you, your first task is to establish yourself as the pack leader.

They enjoy learning (especially when they receive treats).  

They are fiercely loyal.

If you come across a dog that's bad-tempered or vicious, take a careful look at the owner.  It could very well be that the owner of such a dog is also bad-tempered, antisocial and may be abusing the animal.  There's a saying that there are no bad dogs - just bad dog owners.

The same can apply to business.  If you are receiving surly service from a business employee, chances are that the employer is treating the employee with disrespect.

Now, this doesn't mean that dog owners who are kind to their animals will necessarily have obedient dogs.  If the owner(s) can't assert their authority over their dogs, the dogs will try do whatever they want.  

One of the things you learn early on in obedience training is that, in order to be perceived as the pack leader, you must earn the respect of the dog.  Note the emphasis on the word "earn".  You don't automatically get respect just because you're the master or owner.  The process of earning respect is based on a process of building trust, not one of coercing submission.

This does not mean that you punish the dog when it makes a mistake by beating it or hitting it - or even yelling at it.  It's amazing how much you can improve the behavior of a misbehaving dog by talking to it calmly in a disapproving voice.  Dogs have a strong sense of emotion that they pick up in our voices, so they distinguish between when they have pleased us and when they have displeased us.  Couple this with rewarding behavior - verbal praise, stroking and, yes, treats - and dogs quickly learn to do the things that please us and not to do the things that we don't like.

Roxy, who's now approaching 13, is getting a little crusty in her old age and doesn't always come when she's first called.  To get her to obey, I revert to something I learned from my Mother.  When I call, "Roxy Jamieson" in a stern (not angry) voice and emphasize the Jamieson, she knows I really want her to come, and that's usually all it requires when she's reluctant to move.

On the leash, we have the option of yanking on the leash every time the dog does something wrong or we can teach them to understand a correction - a quick flick of the leash that diverts their attention away from a behavior we don't want and gets them back onto what we want them to do.  Again, notice the emphasis on correction: we're trying to correct behavior, not punish bad behavior.

In Cesar Millan's terminology, the goal, as a pack leader, is to exude a calm sense of assertiveness to help the dog achieve balance.  He also promotes the concept of providing a framework of discipline that sets boundaries for the dog and his/her behavior.  He advocates timely use of praise to reinforce good behaviors.  

Now doesn't that sound like a philosophy of good management?

In the next post, I'll tell the story of Sam and what I learned from him about respect.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Employee Engagement: Improving a Damaged Process

One company I worked for made flexible pouches for the medical device, food and military markets.

I'd just recently joined and was following my first order through the plant, so I was still getting to know the people in the production department as well as the processes they used to make our products.

When I came around to the line where my customer's product was being made, I noticed nearly all the operators had bandaids on their thumbs.  So I asked one of them why so many people were wearing bandaids.

This particular customer's product was formed and then diecut to shape in a second operation. To ensure the printing on the pouch was in register to the seals and the overall shape of the pouch, we used what is called a pin registration system. This means that, when the pouch is formed, a series of holes are simultaneously punched around the perimeter of the pouch. When the pouch is diecut, it is placed on a board with a steel ruled die and the holes punched in the pouch fit onto pins mounted in the die board to ensure the pouch is cut consistently and with print in register with the seals and the overall shape.

In this case, the operator explained they were puncturing their thumbs as they struggled to stretch the pouch over the die board to align pins with holes in the pouch. The pins being used were actually nails which, of course, had sharp points.  Moreover, the nails were aluminum roofing nails and were so soft the operators were constantly trying to straighten them out - the tension of the stretched pouch was causing the roofing nails to bend.

This particular product was new to me, but had been run before in our plant and the operator told me this was how the company had been doing this operation "for years."

I liked the ingenuity of using nails for registration pins, however, the type of nail being used was so soft they would only be truly in register the first time they were used.  As more pouches were cut, the nails became more and more distorted.

I went to the production manager and suggested they modify the design of the die to use steel nails, which were much stiffer and more resilient.  I explained the operators were getting injured from using the original die design and the aluminum nails were not helping us produce a consistent product.

The next day, I found the diecutting operation going a bit quicker, and the die boards now had steel nails instead of aluminum.  I asked the operators what they thought.  They told me the new "pins" lasted much longer and they didn't have to keep trying to bend the pins straight.  However, the pins were still nails and they still had sharp points.  People weren't getting hurt so easily, but they were still getting hurt.

Now I spoke with our plant engineer about the issue in our diecutting department.  Like me, he thought using nails as pins was resourceful, but still a long way from being a best-in-class die design.  He modified the pin system to incorporate spring-loaded steel pins with rounded tops.

When we introduced these to the diecutting department, the feedback from the operators was very positive and productivity improved.

I think the operators in this plant appreciated having someone come out to see how they were struggling with a poorly designed process.  Even though our first modification - from aluminum to steel nails - wasn't a complete success, it showed the operators someone was listening to them.  We reinforced that by getting more input from the operators, which led to our plant engineer's solution.

Another thing I found was that, when I went out into the production floor, the operators seemed much more helpful and friendly.  People opened up.  We talked about families, pets, hobbies - and about the processes we used to make our products.  One operator gave me a complete tour of her department - just because I asked "why do you do things this.....?"

Let there be no doubt about it, the people in the diecutting department knew they had a faulty process.  But management either wasn't listening or was just too cheap to do things the right way.  The employees were afraid to ask for improvements.  It just took someone from the front office going out to ask how things were going to get the feedback and drive some action to remedy the issue.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Employee Engagement: Building a Better Workplace

This week, I'm going to switch gears and, instead of relating an anecdote, I'd like to share some things I learned in a recent webinar given by the Canadian Management Centre.

In August, 2012, Ipsos Reid prepared a report on employee engagement in Canada.   They interviewed 1,200 employees at over 500 companies, as well as 484 human resources managers.  The report covered 25 industry sectors. 

As managers, we'd love to think that our employees absolutely enjoy working for our companies.  However, the Ipsos-Reid study indicated that only just over a quarter - 27% - of employees consider themselves engaged.  Disturbingly, 23% classed themselves as totally disengaged.

I think it's safe to say most employees would be quite content to stay with the same employer throughout their careers.  However the study suggested only 37% of employees think their employers are doing a good job of retaining good employees.

What are the economic effects of employee engagement?

One school of thought is that the cost of employee disengagement is the product of one year's average salary times the rate of voluntary turnover (i.e., employees who resign)

According to Ipsos-Reid, employees who are highly engaged in their jobs are 2-1/2 times more likely to consider themselves satisfied with their jobs - and 1-1/2 times more likely to excel in their jobs. To me, this suggests that companies who foster engagement among their employees will have a team that outperforms their competitors.

This correlates with popular wisdom among sales managers that sales people who strongly believe in the product (or service) they're selling are the ones most likely to succeed.  Their passion about the product is infectious and helps them persuade customers to buy.  Their passion - and success - make the job fun, and that makes it a lot easier to get out of the office and make calls on customers, which, in turn, generates even more sales.

A key factor in building employee engagement is for managers to actively get out of their offices and spend time getting to know the people on the front lines.  Really, this is a matter of communication, and the Ipsos-Reid study dealt also with how communication impacts engagement.

Interestingly, another payoff for developing engagement is that, by moving an employee from actively disengaged to highly engaged reduces the likelihood of them leaving the organization by 92%.  If your best and brightest aren't engaged, cultivating positive relationships with them could be your best way to avoid losing them.

According to the study, overall, 68% of Canadian workers are at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs.  When workplace issues (such as working conditions, business cycles, potential layoffs etc.) are seen by employees as being communicated in a timely manner, job satisfaction increased to 88%.

The interaction of "management by walking around" probably is one of the best ways of building engagement because it promotes regular flow of information back and forth between manager and employee.  It permits some key company initiatives to be conveyed informally (which may also be perceived as more sincere) and allows employees to express concerns before they build up to a crisis.

The webinar is posted on YouTube.  Here's a link to take you there:

Another CMC webinar from December 2012 presents highlights of the study.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Employee Engagement: "It's Not in My Job Description"

For me, the sentence, "It's not in my job description", is a huge red flag.

It's a sure sign someone is not a team player.  It's a sign someone is a taker, not a giver. It's a sign someone is self-centered, putting their importance ahead of others.

I think I've said before how influential summer jobs can be, and today I'd like to share with you why I feel so strongly about the phrase in the title of this post.

Between my second and third years in university, I worked in the drill squad of the world famous Fort Henry Guard, based in Kingston, Ontario.

One of the unofficial mottoes of the Guard was "Remain Flexible".  The meaning of this was that, at any time, you could be asked to be a sentry, on gun drill, tour guide or cleaning up. Duties for sentry duty or gun drills were assigned each day, but sometimes we had more visitors than expected, which meant you had to be prepared to take on some new assignments.

While this may have been just a summer job, I think these principles hold true in any well-run organization.

In larger organizations, we tend to be slotted into narrowly defined roles and responsibilities that make it hard to be as flexible as we were at Old Fort Henry.  In smaller organizations, the ability to be functional in job roles outside your core responsibilities is vital.

At one company, our purchasing manager lost both parents within weeks of each other.  She was overwhelmed not only with the loss, but also the responsibilities of attending to both their estates.  As a result, she found it difficult to keep up with her job responsibilities, and purchasing was an area in which we were extremely thin on manpower.

While this was happening, we were also having quality issues with a company that supplied a critical laminated material for one of our products.  They were unable to identify for us whether the issues was the result of a fault in the lamination process or a defective batch of material. We knew we needed to find an alternate supplier for this lamination, and the process for finding one was normally managed by purchasing.

Because of the quality issue, we were prevented from manufacturing a product for one of our key customers, who were anxious to know when we would be able to re-commence supply.  They needed answers, not excuses.

I offered to take the lead on finding alternative suppliers because, in the end, it was a customer-driven issue: we had a customer who could not market their product because we were unable to supply a critical component.  So, while my job role was sales, handling a purchasing issue was also a way of solving a supply chain issue for a customer.

The more I researched companies who made one of the materials in the lamination we purchased, the more I came to realize there were literally only a handful of companies in the world who had the capabilities of making the material used, let alone being able to meet our specifications.  (Our customer thought there would be hundreds of companies who made this material and changing suppliers could be done in a couple of weeks). We were fortunate that two of those suppliers were located within a half-day's drive of our plant, so I visited them both to get a better understanding of the challenges in making the material we needed.

One of these suppliers analyzed samples of the lamination we used - both past and current - and determined that the incumbent had, despite protests otherwise, switched recipes and companies they purchased their materials from.  We now had scientific evidence to support our allegations there had been material substitutions.

A few weeks later, when our purchasing manager returned from bereavement leave, I took her to meet the company we felt represented the best opportunity to supply the lamination we needed.  This gave her a chance to see the plant as well as meet the executive team and allowed me an opportunity to transition the supplier search back to her so she could begin qualification trials.

Taking on a task normally done by purchasing gave me some insights into the challenge purchasing people face in searching for and selecting suppliers.  Given the circumstances, it helped forge a stronger relationship between sales and purchasing While helping the company respond to a customer in need.

When I left this company, the purchasing manager was the first person to come into my office and give me a hug and tell me how much they'd miss me.  I was really touched by this and it is a moment I will never forget.

I hope you can see that, in this situation, the roles of sales and purchasing were very strongly interdependent. Had we stuck to our job roles, we might still have solved the supply chain issue for our customer, but at the cost of several weeks being unable to supply them. Blurring the lines between sales and purchasing in this case demonstrated that our company really required a team effort to survive - and thrive.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Employee Engagement: Making it happen for the Customer

I've mentioned unions before in previous posts, and how some folks find unions to be an obstacle to getting things done.  This week, I'd like to give you another example of a success story from a unionized plant.

At the first B2B manufacturing business I worked for, whenever our general manager was going to be away on vacation, he rotated the job of assuming his role among the members of the management group.

Eventually it became my turn to run the morning production meetings and coordinate production schedules and customer orders for a week. Things started out being very much a routine.

We had an order in house for a new product we were doing for the first time for a new customer my team had been developing.  It wasn't a complex product - just a foil lid for a major yogurt producer - but our production team encountered a serious problem.  The foil we had received to run this order had some significant quality issues that adversely impacted how easily we could run the product on our presses and downstream operations.  It wasn't something we could easily replace.  The lead time for this particular grade of foil was 16 weeks, and the customer's purchase order required it to be delivered the week I was in charge.

Our production manager suggested running the order on an older press that wasn't used much, but we had only a couple of operators who'd ever been trained on this press.  He suggested we ask for volunteers to put together a crew to run this order.

The union assisted us in assembling a crew for this old press and managed to finder an operator from among their membership who had once run this particular piece of equipment.

We met with the crew and explained the challenges to running the job and offered whatever help we could.  They agreed to give it a try.

Not only did they manage to run the order, we also managed to deliver it on time to the customer.  The order took longer to run than we would normally have planned, but the job needed to be run slowly so the press crew could maintain control over the substandard foil they were running.

At no time was the customer aware of the problems we had in producing their order.  The product ran fine on their lines.

At our next communications meeting, the management team recognized the crew who ran the yogurt lid job, and they got lots of cheers from their union mates - and a lot of respect from our management team.

In this case, the men on that crew wanted to demonstrate their skill in running a very challenging job.  None of them wanted to let the customer down.  They came through without the traditional union-management rhetoric.  it was just one instance in which union and management showed they could both be on the same side - the side of the customer.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

People have Customs; Customs are People

Anyone who has traveled internationally has encountered customs officials.

Usually they look stern and impassive and, when we meet up with them, we feel like we're being interrogated (which I suppose we are).  To most of us, they're intimidating.  We look on customs officials as wooden, bureaucratic and cynical - people who can find guilt in the most innocent of people.

However, there IS a human side to customs personnel if you give them a chance to show it.

One of the companies I worked for sold equipment and I regularly carried a demonstration system with me whenever I traveled.

On a couple of occasions, when I was going through US Customs, I was asked to get a document called a carnet, which is basically like a passport for equipment and which demonstrates that the material listed in the carnet is only entering the country for a limited time and would be returning to Canada with me.  The carnet came with a cost (which was not huge), but my boss did not see the need for the carnet because he had had no problems taking equipment across the border himself.

One morning, I was going through US Customs for a week-long trip to the East Coast and was refused entry because I did not have a carnet and it had been documented that I was supposed to get one.  I had never been refused entry to the United States before, so this was a major personal blow, though I did end up driving down and managed to see all the customers I had planned to visit on that trip.

If I thought I had it bad, another person going through about the same time as me was heading to a trade show in New York with a number of hand-tooled saddles.  She had no documents to declare the value of the saddles and was unable to satisfy the customs official that the saddles would not be sold at the trade show and be returned to Canada.  He told her the only way he would allow her to enter the United States was if she used a box cutter to cut into the saddles to make them unsalable.  She obviously wanted the saddles in pristine condition to display at the show.  I don't know how here experience played out - whether she declined to go to the show or if she damaged her merchandise to be able to participate in the show.

My case for getting a carnet was now much stronger, and we got the document.

Using a carnet requires the carnet-holder to clear Customs in his/her home country and then Customs in the destination country, reversing this on the return journey.  Each time Customs takes a fiche or page from the carnet and stamps the document so the other customs officers can verify that procedures have been properly followed.

When flying, the carnet can only be cleared through designated international airports that have a customer office, which restricts where a carnet-holder can depart.  At Laguardia Airport in New York, the US Customs office is about a half mile walk from the terminal in a separate building, but usually Customs is somewhere inside the terminal building.

From a Customs officer's perspective, the carnet is a professional way to handle temporary importing of equipment or tools.  It demonstrates the carnet-holder's openness about declarable items as well as being properly prepared for customs inspection.  And you get more of an opportunity to interact with Customs personnel.

One one trip to the US - just before Thanksgiving - I had a pleasant chat with the customs inspector about holiday preparations and got his recipe for smoking a turkey.

One time I was driving and declared to the primary inspector what I was travelling with.  He asked, "Plasma. As in the 4th state of matter?", which caught me a bit off guard.  It turned out he was a science buff and watched a lot of Discovery Channel.  I asked if he'd like to see the equipment and I could explain to him how it worked.  We spent a pleasant 15 minutes together.  He could show his supervisors he'd done a thorough inspection, he learned something new and I got my equipment across the border so I could make my sales calls.  We both won on this exchange.

On a return journey from the US, the time getting customs documents was taken up by comparing notes on operations the customs officer and I had had.

Coming back into Canada one time, I was standing in line in secondary waiting for my turn and one of the officers called out, "Is that a carnet you have there?" When I confirmed this, I was whisked to an officer who I guess had had a full day of going through passenger's luggage looking for prohibited food, alcohol and tobacco and for her, it was a welcome relief to deal with someone who had things in order.

Customs people have a tough job to do to protect our countries.  They are trained to be wary so they can spot potential smugglers or criminals and often this wariness is what we see when we go through Customs.  But they are still people.  If you treat them with respect, it's possible for the human side to shine through.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Employee Engagement: Are Unions Really a Barrier?

Ask most people who work in manufacturing about how they feel about unions, and you’ll get mostly negative responses.

Unions have rules that are counterproductive. They protect poor or lazy employers. 
They’ll strike at the drop of a hat.  They result in higher labor rates.  Union people are antagonistic.

In my career, I‘ve worked in both unionized and non-unionized plants and had equal success in both. 

When in moved from CPG into B2B, I moved from one company with a history of labor woes to another. At my previous company, the plant employees had struck about a month after I’d joined.  At my new employer, I attended my first communications meeting in the first month.  The union representatives were extremely outspoken and confrontational with my boss, the general manager.  At my previous company, the plant was in a different city from our where our offices were located, so I was relatively insulated from the conflict during the strike there.  This time, I was seeing the result of years of poor labor relations first hand.  It was very unsettling.

Our management team overcame the labor relations issues at this company by devoting a portion of our time to being on the plant floor and to becoming approachable so the employees felt comfortable coming to us with questions or issues.

My next employer also was a unionized plant, though I never really noticed the presence or influence of the union when I was on the plant floor.

My sales team and I had been working on developing a new customer in the US. We had provided them sample material.  They never ran it.  I took their sales manager out on sales calls to see if we could jointly develop a new application for the customer’s product.  The project didn’t move forward, but at least we were able to communicate better, though they still had not found time to run our sample material.

It turned out the customer was planning to exhibit at a major industry trade show (as was my company) and I contacted the sales manager to suggest to him it might be a good idea to hand out some samples of their product at the show, and that we’d be happy to supply the material.  I’ll never forget his response.

“Ron, we have four other suppliers for our films and we still haven’t gotten around to qualifying the samples you provided.  However, none of those other suppliers offered to supply film for the samples we wanted to run.  Consider this your first order with us. And please bill us we couldn’t have you provide the film at your expense.”

We wanted to make a really good impression on this customer and provide him a first class product.  I asked our plant manager if I could meet with the operators who would be running the customer’s order.

I told the operators of our goal on this order and asked them how they wanted to run it.  What kind of printing plates?  What kind of inks? Which film supplier to use?  It wasn’t a very long meeting, but I came away feeling like we had a clear plan on how to produce this order.

When the customer received the order (on time, by the way), he called up to complain.

“We aren’t going to pay for gravure printing (a higher-resolution, more costly process than flexography). This job was supposed to be done flexo.  We need flexo printed film ASAP to make the show”

I explained to him, over the phone, that we had definitely used the flexo printing process on his order and that there would be no change in the price.  I asked him to get a magnifying glass and take a close look at the printing, and pointed out to him the characteristics that verified the printing was flexo.  The customer responded,

“Well, this is the best damn flexo printing I’ve ever seen!  I’m impressed.”

The trade show was a huge success for the customer.  His samples were well-received.

I also conveyed to the crew that ran his order the comments he’d made.  They loved it and you could see the pride on their faces.  They knew they’d done a great job.

Did I remember to mention this crew was all union?  I can only see how these guys put aside management-union bias to show off their skill.  And I never heard a negative word from the union local about meeting with their people or working with them.  We all won that day.