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Published: August 29, 2007

 
 

My Unfashionable Legacy

In 1990, I took a job as director of operations for CPFilms, a man­ufacturing firm that had been recently acquired by the British chemical company Courtaulds (the “CP” stands for Courtaulds Performance). Based, like the DuPont plant, in Martinsville, this division made electromagnetic spectrum polyester film used in automobile and architectural windows. I left my secure, comfortable job at DuPont, where I’d been for 21 years, with the understanding that I would have a free hand to implement high-performance systems.

Indeed, that was the only way I could imagine achieving the financial results that Courtaulds wanted. The market share of the whole business unit was falling; quality was poor; we had massive inventory costs; production was rife with infighting; there were regular bomb threats at the factory and lost-time injuries at least once every three weeks; on Monday mornings, some operators were too hung over to work; and customers were looking for alternatives. The CPFilms executives, all located two hours away, had grown up in the “old school” of empty presentations and high levels of control. They were all ready to sell the place off, and would have done so if not for the effect that selling at a loss would have on the stock price. Instead, out of desperation, they gave me a relatively free hand.

“The Floor Did It”
I took on the task of simultaneously improving results, managing day-to-day activities, and transforming the company. This transformation began with three basic objectives: to maximize our competitive position, to improve the quality of our thinking, and to create a culture of continuous improvement. I laid out a basic principle: Before making any decisions, the division’s managers would seek the maximum intelligence of all relevant and affected people. Decisions would be openly communicated before being implemented, and challenges to them would be welcomed, provided the challenges were based on logic and sound business.

Everyone was skeptical — operators, maintenance personnel, and upper management. I knew that the first people to see the value of high-performance systems would be those most immediately connected to production, innovation, and quality: the operators. Then interest might spread to frontline supervisors, to the maintenance group, to the middle managers, and, finally, to the marketing and sales managers. All these groups had to be knit together, so we started by creating task forces to solve problems that were frustrating the operators and hurting the business.

The first group called themselves the “dust busters.” The dyehouse where CPFilms added color to polyester was hot, dirty, and overwhelmed by problems with quality and production. Morale was so bad  in that shop that, when an operator with 30 years of service fell from a faulty ladder and broke his collarbone, he was too afraid of losing his job to list the real reason on the paperwork. Blaming the ladder would mean blaming the manager who hadn’t repaired it, so he wrote down that “the floor did it.”

With me cheerleading and protecting them, the dust busters started to clean up the plant. Our safety program explicitly stated that the company had to provide a safe environment and reliable tools and that everyone would be responsible for their own safety and that of their fellow employees. This was a sign that management was paying attention. “Maybe they really care about us,” people said.

Then we went further. “Everyone will be a businessperson,” we declared. “And layoffs will not result from our improvement efforts.” This meant that we would give up the long-standing (and much-disliked) practice of hiring people during good times and letting them go during our seasonal downturns. Talk about culture shock! It also meant giving blue-collar workers tasks and responsibilities that had once been reserved for managers. For instance, when we bought new equipment, the operators visited other sites that used that machine, and then budgeted and installed the machine themselves.

 
 
 
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