Many years ago, I worked at an oil tool business in Southern California. Company leaders there claimed they only hired the best people, paid in the top percentile for them, and expected a lot from them. I led the material requirements planning group, which performed master scheduling, production, and material planning; bill of material maintenance; and shop floor follow-up and troubleshooting.
Planners were organized around product lines and were responsible for coordinating them with the master schedule. I had people on my team who had been shop floor supervisors, buyers, engineers, and more. The group was designed to take people from other groups, train and develop them, and put them back in their departments. My boss asked for superior performance and, more importantly, required us to make things happen and take action as necessary.
One of my planners once came to me to discuss poor manufacturing performance with a particular product line. After analysis, it was discovered that we needed more capacity and better flow. Within a week, we had identified space in the factory that could be dedicated to the product and found some old equipment that could be put to use. Within three weeks, we had the department running. We coordinated manufacturing, facilities, and manufacturing engineering. The work was done entirely by people at the manager level and lower.
All I did to facilitate these improvements was inform my boss and the manufacturing director what we were doing. We never asked permission. We never did an analysis on return on investment. We just got it done. Within weeks, we were shipping to the plan.
Another time, a client of ours requested a new product. I remember it being drawn on a napkin over lunch, evolving into a workable design, and leading to a handshake between our CEO and leaders from the client company. In less than 90 days, we delivered. To say the least, it was challenging and fun. The team met once a day, pounded out the details, and took action.
Toward the end of the project, I received a phone call from my planner, who was at the delivery site—an oil rig in the middle of the Texas panhandle. He informed me that he had used the company’s American Express Card to rent a DC-3 airliner that could deliver parts by landing next to the oil rig. He didn’t ask for an OK; he just did it because, in his mind, it was the only way to get the equipment to the site quickly. I then informed the vice president of manufacturing about this purchase, who praised my planner for his decisiveness.
Now consider an aerospace manufacturer for which I worked during the total quality management (TQM) revolution. I was the senior manager of production control at one site. My people—union dispatchers and expediters—were working to improve flow and reduce inventory. We had taken Just-in-Time principles, modified them, and put them into work.
A new deputy director came out to the floor on his initial walk through, saw the changes we were making, and promptly told us to stop our efforts and go back to what we had been doing in the past. My people passionately argued for their approach, but he said he was the deputy director and told them to do what they were told. Within an hour, the TQM model was dead.
Keeping it moving
How committed is your organization to speed and flexibility? To find out, look at your organization chart and see how many management levels exist. If there are more than four to six, there is trouble. Too many levels of approval shows “paralysis by analysis.”
I hear executive after executive talking about the need for speed and flexibility, but few are willing to take the action necessary to achieve these goals. Being fast and agile means listening, trusting, and enabling meaningful action. Free your people. It takes a self-confident leader to really make it work—but it’s well worth it.
Philip E. Quigley, CFPIM, PMP, is a senior application portfolio manager for Computer Sciences Corporation. He teaches at Chapman University’s Argyros School of Business and Economics and California State University at Fullerton. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.