As I write this brief story it has given me the opportunity to reflect back on my time in industry and the application of the principles of TPM. I am currently travelling back from a TPM practitioner’s workshop that I have been supporting in Nagoya in Japan for the last week. This scenario is somewhat surreal based on the fact that TPM has its origins based in Japan and who would have thought that exactly thirty years ago to the month I entered industry, as a fresh faced undergraduate working in the Pharmaceutical industry that thirty years on I would be providing guidance to the Japanese in the principles and the application of a process that they invented-to me a very humbling thought and experience.
This 30 year anniversary of time prompted me to recall an experience that I had about three to four months into my then first role as a Beecham’s (now GSK) graduate management trainee based in St. Helens England. Back in the good old days before the onslaught of the digital revolution, a production graduate manager was not looking at a PC for seven or eight hours a day because the natural default was to be on the shop floor at the ‘coal face’ learning what actually happened in the process.
We in the western world now call this ‘look, go and see’ but back in those days if you wanted to learn this was one of few options available .Because of the highly sensitive unionized environment and a management philosophy that was out to appease the trade unions without recognizing that true collaboration was surely the right approach, it was not possible for me to do the operator’s job to gain a real and true understanding of the process.
However, at that time there was a concern over the potential risk of exposure to a material in Diocalm tablets. this meant for about three weeks I had to make the product in the Granulation department, as the trade unions had refused for their members to work with the materials until the required extraction had been installed in the dispensary area.
Initially -with some reservation that I would be doing ‘manual’ labour for three weeks- I did not relish the task ahead. However, with the appropriate PPE, I set about the task and felt that this had opened a totally different outlook on the process and an appreciation from an ‘operator’s point of view’. This also helped me very early on to recognize that it is the person doing the job that is the real expert in the process and not the manager who may reside in the office most of the day and tends to only visit the ‘value adding’ area when there is a problem. Also, that manager’s first point of advice is a supervisor who also have only second-hand knowledge of the real process and hence based on opinion and not fact.
I recall a conversation that I had with Joe who was the foreman of the tabletting suite in charge of compression and tablet production. It’s important to also remember this was before the transformation to a value stream organization when foremen became team leaders, who co-incidentally, could also now be of the fairer sex!
Anyway, there was an issue with tablet thickness and Joe came to me to seek advice. He came to me because I was a ‘manager’- albeit on the line making product as an ‘operator’. I was certainly not a tabletting expert as I had only been working in the industry for a couple of months. The thing was that Joe, who had previously been an operator, knew the answer of how to resolve the issue but lacked the confidence and maybe the conviction to do so without seeking permission from the manager, ie ‘the boss’.
The key learning point for me in those early days was that the business at the time had not created the right environment or culture that recognized that the person doing the task is in the best position to solve problems given the correct support, encouragement and resources. It was more about the easy option for Joe to escalate an issue and not accept responsibility or ownership of the problem. The management at the time were ultimately responsible for creating this embedded culture driven by fear of retribution and not allowing the realization of people’s potential. Which is exactly the opposite of what the TPM System can deliver in the right hands
My story above is a constant reminder to me based on a saying attributed to US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Cooper (1906-1992) and early computer programmer, that suggests
’It is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission’.
I interpret this wisdom to mean that in any situation where there is a good idea based on experience, this can either be, on the one hand, encouraged and served, or, on the other hand, hampered by, at best, red tape or, at worst, complete disapproval by those in charge. Hence it’s better to try and then have to apologize later if it doesn’t work, rather than to try to get permission and, seemingly, waste time in doing so!