When you can’t handle the truth
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When you can’t handle the truth

Why not put your lean know-how to the test in this continuous improvement dilemma below:

Our business was really badly hit by the recession and has embraced a change programme to help us survive. We brought in a lean consultant and they helped us create a really exciting strategy geared around continuous improvement ideals. If we could make a series of marginal improvements then we’d salvage the business without having to take drastic measures like job losses or shutdowns. Time and again, we heard that our success or failure would depend on our ability as a management team to bring the people with us.

That was a big challenge as it’s fair to say our site is best described as ‘old-school’. The shopfloor parts like the Red Sea whenever a senior manager makes an appearance as operators scarper as far away from ‘one of them’ as possible.

But we vowed to change our culture. Each manager launched a series of face-to-face meetings with shift teams. We promised employees total honesty about our predicament and we asked them to be completely candid in return. The ‘town hall meetings’ were a great hit.

The managers pulled no punches. If we didn’t change, the factory was gone. In return, after plenty of nervous glances, our operators began to open up about their frustrations from a lifetime working in a command and control environment. A few months in and an engaged shopfloor had been instrumental in reductions in lead times and cutting inventory. I was just beginning to day dream about the team taking the stage at the Best Factory Awards when the phone rang. “John,” said an angry voice on the other end of the line, I instantly recognised as that of our MD. “I’ve just come up from a town hall meeting and I will not have it. I want Smith, Robson and Jackson given warnings for misconduct. They openly belittled me and my judgment. I’m all for honesty, but those testy little blighters need to be given a few home truths about the consequences of biting the hand that feeds. Haul them in and shift them out by the end of the month.”

The phone line went dead. I immediately asked a witness what had happened and he explained that the shopfloor trio had gone to town when critiquing some practices handed down by the hierarchy of old. They’d used some industrial language to make their point and may just have overstepped the line. However, I think they had some valid points. How do I resolve this situation? If I do what our MD wants I’ll destroy the trust that’s allowed our improvement initiative to thrive. If I refuse, I could find myself joining Smith, Robson and Jackson down at the local Jobcentre.

Kevin Eyre of SA Partners gives the expert view…
Okay, so it’s time to test your mettle. The change programme is working. Performance is improving and you’ve connected this success to the new openness that you’ve worked hard to introduce. If you follow the MD’s demand to sack ‘the outspoken ones’ then the programme will collapse, the plant will close, and you’ll find yourself looking for a new job anyway – only this time from a position of failure. Go find your cojones quick!

The tricky priority is the MD. (Smith, Robson and Jackson need dealing with, but that’s a straightforward affair to which we’ll return). Here’s the thing; most leaders are deeply forgiving of misdemeanours where performance is good, and deeply intolerant of it when it’s poor. Call the MD and talk performance. Explain to him by how much it’s improved and the benefit that this result has for him personally. Assure him that you are clear about what you’re doing and that it’s the way you are managing the business that is responsible for the result.

Explain, that you intend to stick to your recipe for success and that you’d consider it risky to change course now. And naturally, any action that would inhibit the new openness is to be avoided. You’ve thought hard about it and you’ve decided that Smith, Robson and Jackson are going to be severely dealt with, but they will remain a part of the business. Indeed, their outspokenness ought to be regarded as an indication of their commitment, not their opposition.

It’s the sneaky, silent ones that you have to be wary of.

Finally, politely remind the MD that you are accountable for the performance and are committed to see the change through. Having held your nerve, find a quiet room and tremble privately.

As for ‘los tres amigos’, haul them in and read them the riot act. All comments and questions are valued and welcome, but there is no place for disrespect. They should consider this conversation a final warning. Remind them of the role the MD played in creating the business and suggest that they seriously consider writing a letter of apology in which they can express their commitment to the organisation and the passion they feel for it – which goes some way to explaining their outspokenness.

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