Walls are great for supporting roofs. They also offer an excellent place to put windows and they can hold pictures, paintings and holiday decorations with the greatest of ease. They have been made of mud, twigs, stones, logs, dry wall, stucco and wood. They protect us from the elements. But invisible walls between departments within your organization can kill any continuous improvement program let alone stifle any communication.
I was interviewed by three different teams of two individuals per team consisting of an outside consultant, a H.R. rep and other various management staff from the company. They all had their long lists of questions probing my views, experiences and existence. They all expressed the need for “changing the culture” and were looking for the “right people” to fit in and hope you “enjoy working lots of hours”. The company was ready to move to the next level and they were looking for the horses to help get them there. My interview marathon was followed by a few weeks of silence and then, I along with one other candidate were chosen to be their next Warehouse Supervisors and so our odyssey began.
What should have been a clue for me about this company at first went right by me. I was busy trying to learn my way around the facility along with everybody’s name, when it soon hit me. Why did they go through all that preparation and effort hiring us, but were totally unprepared to give us the proper training? There wasn’t any written procedures or guidelines and always an excuse to have to stop training and leave us to on our own. Just watch what’s going on and we’ll be back soon. There always seemed to be fires to be put out or a meeting they needed to attend and then, one day, like a mother bird pushing her chick out of the nest to learn to fly, we were told to flap our wings and put onto our new shifts. “We know you’re not ready, but we have no choice and we really need you guys on shift and you’ll learn faster this way.”
This company, a good sized manufacturer, “Dis-function, Inc.” was set up like most. Production – they made the product. Packaging – they packaged the finished product. Warehouse – they palletize, stored and shipped the product. Maintenance. Seems so simple and should flow without any problems except walking through the doors everyday was like entering an episode of the Game of Thrones. The three main departments were run like kingdoms and instead of each one working together, they were constantly at war with one another. They all erected large walls with moats and draw bridges as they worked in their own universe and the only goals were their goals and not the company’s. Packaging couldn’t care less if maintenance couldn’t fix a section of conveyors in the warehouse, they needed to move product out of their area on time to make their goal. What I wasn’t prepared for and was my second clue, were the frequent loud finger pointing arguments between the packaging and warehouse managers right on the floor in front of us supervisors and the staff. I also found that the managers, instead of addressing issues within their own departments, were busy in the after hours spying on one another’s department and would even stop and questioned employees as to why they were doing things a certain way. Then would offer their findings and suggestions to upper management on how to improve the production flow in that department to score points, which would lead to more fights, to the point, one day we were told by our manager that if the packaging manager entered our realm at any point when he wasn’t there, the packaging manager was to be shown the door, “I don’t care how you stop him.” Our weekly meetings with our manager didn’t focus on improvements or maintenance issues as much as they did on gossip and revenge. What had I gotten myself into?
While all these walls between departments were being maintained, the same couldn’t be said for all the equipment and machinery. Things weren’t getting repaired in a timely manner and they had backed up over time greatly impacting production. Lines were always down, motors burning out, gears not lubed and the ASRS had a jam every hour. To make it worse the warehouse was always last on the list as production and packaging were higher priorities. It didn’t make any sense to me and this was yet another clue. If the warehouse couldn’t keep moving on a continuous basis packaging and production were always going to back up due to our maintenance breakdowns but no one wanted to hear that. There were nights that it got so bad with all the breakdowns one particular packaging supervisor told us how stupid we were because we couldn’t run our department and how much that impacted them. The sad thing was that upper management could have stopped this at any time and demonstrated some leadership but they appeared happy with things as they were. This dysfunction had gone on so long it WAS the company culture and you can’t change the culture you were hired to change when no one else wants too. The warehouse supervisors that had been there much longer than us new hires had long ago began mailing it in and just didn’t care. They would tell me to lower my expectations and that nothing was ever going to change.
So what do you do? Well as I see it, you can quit and find another job, like the ones you read about in the trade magazines where there’s great collaboration among staff and real continuous improvement programs. You can stay and become part of the problem by just developing tunnel vision by not caring and going through the motions on a daily basis and slowly lose your mind. You can stay and use everything you have learned over the years and stand up and become part of the solution. I’ve always been turned on by challenges and when things got tough was never a quitter as my peer who was hired along with me had done. I decided I was going to be part of the solution and drew a line in the sand even if it meant I could wind up getting fired for daring to change the culture and disturbing the status quo. I was going with my conscience and on my terms.
I’m not going to lie to you, this decision was the biggest challenge of my life and it was not easy. But were to start? Well, begin with taking care of what I could within my department. We could improve how we did some things and started with our biggest problem, maintenance issues. I began by tracking all the continuous maintenance issues listing them by time of occurrence, how long we were down, why, and resolution. I organized the information collected from all three shift’s reports and recorded it on a spreadsheet, but in a universal language upper management would understand, $money. In black and white for all to see, how much down time due to lack of maintenance was actually costing the company and gave the info to my boss every day. We were able to demonstrate a cause and effect and my manager had the ammunition he needed to do battle and it helped us to finally get the ear of upper management. They began to look deeply into how maintenance issues were addressed in the warehouse and we were able to hire two additional maintenance people. I did the same thing with safety issues by turning out work orders daily after teaching myself how to use our WO system since no one wanted to take the minute to help me. Started writing departmental procedures so we were all on the same page and helped develop maintenance protocol. I knew I was making an impact, since this place used silence to hope you would go away and it was quiet, but soon the word was out, that Phil is not going away and holding people accountable.
That’s one reason I wanted to point out Lisa Woods great article, “Success tips for Middle Managers.” You should read it especially if you’re in a similar situation or beginning your career because they were many of the ways I handled my situation. http://www.managingamericans.com/blogFeed/Success-Tips-For-Middle-Managers.htm?goback=%2Egde_2260307_member_175838406.
I am not going to kid you, doing all the extra work while completing daily tasks wasn’t easy and I went through a lot of hell for trying to do what needed to be done. I didn’t have a trumpet to bring the walls down and the long hours and constant battle finally took it’s toll and I finally left after three years, but I have never been sorry but actually grateful I had this experience. It made me a much better manager and a stronger person while I got to witness holes I put into those walls and actually got a conversation going between departments. At work and in life you should always stick to your beliefs and go with your gut otherwise you’ll never know what kind of impact you can have in the long run.