People do what you inspect, not what you expect

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

How much time do you spend in your plant and with your direct reports? Years ago, we were asked to lead the transformation of the second largest integrated steel mill in the world, all 20,000+ hourly employees and 13 labor unions. In our initial meeting, the V.P. and General Manager, who was also the corporate “fixer”, asked what had to be done to transform this operation from one that was losing key customers and hundreds of millions annually to one that could compete in the new global marketplace. At first, he was stunned by our answer, which was simply that he needed to change the way he managed the operation. After recovering from this initial shock, we discussed what these changes would be.

When John was first assigned to either fix or shut down this failing operation, he dedicated one full day each week to spending time on the plant floor—listening to the workers and having open, honest communications that gave both parties an understanding of the business and its drivers. In this heavily union environment, neither labor nor management trusted the other and through this “management by walking around” style, he was able to break down some of the barriers and open a dialogue that was having positive impact on performance.

His time on the floor was essential for two reasons. First, the simple fact that John cared enough to spend his time on the plant floor listening and learning about the issues and problems that impacted the workforce’s ability to meet performance standards had a positive impact on everyone. The key to his success was that he really listened and learned.

Second, the fact that he allocated a measurable portion of his busy schedule to these regular plant floor visits sent a message that the employees and their input were valued—what they do has value to the company and their insights are important. I can remember my early mentors and how impressed I was with them when they would ask me about my work. It really felt good to think they—as busy as they were—took the time to check with me about my contribution to the company. Even after I learned that this was a planned activity and that they kept “tickler files” to remind them to follow up on key points, my admiration did not diminish.

There is another reason that executive managers—especially the most senior—should spend time on the floor. It is the only way he or she can have a factual understanding of the plant’s operations. One cannot rely on the reporting systems, no matter how good they are, for the level of understanding needed to effectively lead and assure sustainable competitive performance levels. The only way to truly understand what is or is not happening on the plant floor or within your span of control is to regularly spend time directly observing or participating in its operations.

Whether we recognize it or not, there is a communications filtering system in place in all plants or corporations. These filters may be inadvertent or intentional but either way they distort reality as information flows from the plant floor to the executive office as well as from the executive office to the plant floor. When inadvertent, the filtering is the subconscious interpretation or skewing of information as it is passed up or down the hierarchy of the organization. This is compounded by the inherent desire for job security that leads us to put the best face on any data or information that may be seen by our superiors.

For those of you who are into Lean, this “management by walking around” is called Gemba, which means “the real place” and is appropriate to this discussion in that the plant or factory floor is the most critical part of any operation. Regardless of what you call it, this simple management tool affords company leaders, managers and supervisors a simple, easy means of supporting overall continuous improvement and process standardization while helping to insure alignment of the efforts of all teams.

What happened to John and the world’s second largest integrated steel mill? It took time, but the transformation was successful. Within a year, the mill was generating a substantial operating profit and regaining lost market share. One key to this success was the active, willing participation and involvement of the mill’s entire workforce—created by a mutual trust between labor and management driven by John’s weekly time on the plant floor. Yes there was much more involved, including a new enterprise information management system, standard work processes and procedures that eliminated waste and losses, and culture that embraced continuous improvement. As John said, “It was like pulling an impacted wisdom tooth without Novocain, but it was worth it.”

If you’re considering spending more time on the plant floor or with your direct reports, I would caution you to do it right. Be open and sincere. Encourage everyone to be open and honest. Really listen to what you hear and always, always respond to questions and suggestions. If you still need motivation to get out of your office, remember Mobley’s Third Law.

“People do what you inspect, not what you expect.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,

R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

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