Did you hear that our plant’s closing?

By on January 5, 2016
Did you hear that our plant’s closing?

These were the first words I heard a worker say as I was walking down the production line at one of our high tech manufacturing clients. Since I had heard nothing that even came close to suggesting that what he was saying was true, I asked him, “Where did you hear this?” He replied, “A lot of folks on the line are saying it.” Intrigued by this disparity between what I thought I knew and what I was hearing, I decided to do some detective work and try to find out the source of this explosive rumor.

Here’s what I found. Two months previously, an asphalt company had started work repaving the plant’s parking lot. After three weeks their work stopped, leaving the parking lot about half repaved. And that’s when talk about what was going on with the parking lot really started generating a lot of talk on the production line, talk that finally coalesced into this story.

Work on the parking lot was stopped because the company was broke and couldn’t afford to pay the contractor. And, of course, this meant that the plant was closing and everybody was going to be out of a job.

Absolute fantasy. This manufacturer wasn’t even close to “being broke”. On the contrary, they were doing very well. So how in the world could a rumor this destructive get started and go viral on the plant floor?

Two factors triggered this very virulent rumor and stimulated its spread. First, this plant, like far too many, had a management team that shared little information with line workers. Second, we human beings always try to fill information voids. And if we don’t have access to relevant information, these voids tend to be filled with bad news.

That’s exactly what happened here. It didn’t have to happen this way. Unhappily, it does happen this way far too often. Here’s one more example.

Several years ago, a manufacturer being served by an associate of mine lost a major contract and had to shut down a production line. Some employees were laid off. Shortly after this happened, an employee posted a note on a bulletin board in their breakroom. My colleague made a copy of it and showed it to me. I’ll never forget what it said. In very simple and powerful language this line worker got right to the heart of the matter when he wrote: “Why didn’t you tell us about what’s happening with the company? After all, what happens isn’t just about your money; it’s about our future also.

It’s about our future also.” Yes, it is. And forgetting this creates fractures in a company, it creates barriers to open communication. It creates barriers to progress. It guarantees mediocrity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If managers would really take to heart an observation that Henry Ford made 100 years ago it wouldn’t. Ford said:

“Success and failure belong to everyone.”

This very simple and profound comment has major implications in terms of the behavior of an organization’s leadership team. Just for starters, if it is indeed true that success and failure belong to everybody than everybody’s ideas need to be heard and respected. And everybody needs to be kept informed about all factors that will impact the organization’s future. Good and bad. In other words, lines of communication need to be open and robust.

Henry Ford’s idea about success and failure is at the very heart of Lean manufacturing. Toyota calls it “Servant Leadership”. When an organization adopts the Servant Leadership model the full power of high degrees of employee engagement is unleashed and great things happen.

Our Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of Lean consulting and training services that you can put to work in your organization. When this happens, there’ll be no talk about “Did you hear our plant’s closing?” or “Why didn’t you tell us about what’s happening with the company?” Line workers will know what’s happening. They’ll be an integral part of what’s happening. And when this transformation takes place, do you know what they’ll think? They’ll think that they work for their company. And that’s exactly what you want them to think.

I’d value the opportunity to discuss our Lean services with you. I think you’d find this time very well spent. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s arrange a time to meet.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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