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.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Employee Engagement: The New Meaning of Gamesmanship

Employees love to be involved in the business and one of their biggest concerns is the health of the business, because it determines the security of their jobs.

Many companies hold “all-employee” or “Communication” meetings on a regular basis to share results or to discuss topics relevant to all employees, such as safety.  For the managers, it means sharing data (which some hate to do) and time away from what they perceive as more important tasks.  For the employees, it often means an hour of incredibly boring statistics and lecture from the management.

It can be difficult to see how well employees absorb what they’ve been presented, but I’m certain employees retain little of what they’ve seen and heard from these meetings because they’re overwhelmed by the masses of numbers that have been thrown at them.

I tried a different approach at one company.

To present my sales and business development numbers, I structured my presentation around the concept of the game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”.

We gave a few employees from the floor the opportunity to be “contestants” so they could answer questions about business development.  There were several questions along the lines of “How many new customers did we develop in the latest quarter?”  Each question had 4 possible answers.

Our contestants had support opportunities like “Lifeline”, where they could have a friend help, or “50/50” whereby two incorrect answers were eliminated.  Programming to do this in PowerPoint actually wasn’t all that hard, and it was more than adequate to re-create the gameplay.

When we did the presentation as part of our quarterly communications meeting, the employees ended up getting right into it.  Contestants had the audience shouting out what they thought was the right answer, and it really recreated the atmosphere of the TV show in our cafeteria.

Even though our segment was only supposed to run about 10 minutes, it was the segment the employees voted as most interesting.  They had some fun.  They were involved in the presentation and everyone got to participate in some way.  Best of all, they remembered the statistics we had presented.

Presenting data to employees can be a waste of everybody’s time if the message gets ignored because the way it’s being presented is overwhelming or just plain boring.  To some, it may be hokey to use the game show approach (and it probably isn’t appropriate for some topics), but the WAY in which the information is presented can have a dramatic impact on attentiveness and retention of that information.  If work can be fun, it no longer is drudgery.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Employee Engagement: Learn to Walk the Line

A couple of years ago, I interviewed for a job as a General Manager for a manufacturing company.

When I was briefed about the position, I was told their employees were on strike and that I'd have to cross the picket line for my first interview.  I'd never crossed a picket line before, but there had to be a first time.

On the day of the interview, I drove out to the plant, and allowed some time to get there early enough that I could see the picket line and observe the procedure for crossing it.  The company had told me to allow 15-20 minutes just to get through the picket line.

The strike was an issue for the company.  They asked me if it would have any impact on their ability to acquire new customers. I told them it would, in my opinion, convey a company that was dysfunctional.  Even more so because the strike had gone on for two years without a settlement. The union involved in this case was the steelworkers, and I knew they had a reputation for being nasty.

I approached the picket line with trepidation.  One of the picketers came over to my car and formally told me there was a strike in effect and that I would have to wait for 15 minutes before I could proceed to the parking lot.

At this point, I thought about what I should do.  These picketers could potentially be employees I would have to work with on a day-to-day basis.  I could stay in my car for the 15 minutes or get out and talk to the picketers to see what I could learn about the strike.  I chose the latter.

Having told one of the picketers I was there for a job interview, I asked what the strike was all about.  They were very open in explaining the key issues behind the strike.  I asked them how they managed to cope with living having been out on the strike for such a long time and I heard stories about how some moved into other jobs or companies to be able to support their families.  They told me about what they had to sacrifice to make ends meet.  Somehow our conversation segued into talk about golf, football and other things.

The 15 minutes went by pretty quickly and the picketers gave me the go ahead to drive to the parking lot and gave me directions on how to find the entrance to the office.

The formal part of the interview was comparatively tame - a plant tour and discussion with the plant manager and the company's HR manager.  I was subsequently invited for a round of interviews at the company's corporate offices.

For this phase of interviewing, I met with people from R&D, Finance and Sales.  My final interview of the day was with the CEO.

He asked me how the day had gone and about my interest in the position.  Eventually, he got round to asking about the strike. The CEO proudly stated the company had brought on replacement workers who were exceeding the productivity of the union employees and the company was able to keep pace with demands of exiting customers.  He asked, as I'd been asked before, if I felt the strike would adversely impact their ability to attract new business.  

I told him the strike definitely WOULD give potential customers some concerns about the company's ability to supply them in a reliable manner.  Settling the strike had to be the top priority for the new GM.

The CEO told me, in no uncertain terms, he had absolutely NO intention of settling the strike.  They'd made offers to the union and the union was unable to sell those terms to their members, so the union was the problem.

From my viewpoint, I now had a clearer idea of why the strike had gone on as long as it had and who was responsible for that situation - and it wasn't the union.  At this point, I made up my mind that this was not a position or company I wanted to work for.

The Leadership of a company sets the tone for how it runs.  In this case, the leadership of this company was confrontational and this had created an atmosphere of distrust among the employees.  As it turned out, the plant I interviewed at was closed down and sold off within a year of my visit there.

They may be picketers, but they still are people.  If you treat strikers on an adversarial basis, you'll probably get a lot of push-back. Approaching them as people and showing some empathy helped me make the best of what could have been a bad situation. My approach was to treat crossing the picket line as a first interview.  I was almost 100% certain there would be some feedback to the company about how I behaved on the line, and I wanted that feedback to be positive.  I think I took the right approach.